Planning is Good, but Pivoting is Better in Fort Collins, Colorado - Episode 588 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Chad Crager, Broadband Executive Director at City of Fort Collins, to talk about the rapidly maturing city-owned network they call Connexion. From a feasibility study in 2018 to the lion's share of construction completed today, Connexion's story illustrates the value of being nimble when expectations meet reality. When planned use of existing conduit was thwarted by frozen and root-blocked pathways, the city bored new routes. When that led to increased construction costs, the city adjusted its target take rate upwards and hired dedicated, community-minded staff eager to be responsive to subscribers and build a sense of goodwill. And when developers argued they only needed a single fiber to run wireless for new apartment complexes, the city convinced them to plan for more growth in the future.

Along the way, the municipal network has committed to doing its part in the fight for digital equity. This includes the establishment of a fund with 6 percent of network revenues going to support low-cost plans and literacy efforts, to partnering with Larimer County on extending the network outside city limits, and more.

This show is 38 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed.

Transcript below.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show: please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or see other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Chad Crager (00:07):
If the entire culture is to do whatever we can for every resident in the community or the region that really has to start there and not something that's put on a piece of paper once a year.

Christopher (00:19):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. [00:00:30] Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with Chad Crager, the broadband executive director at the city of Fort Collins. Welcome.

Chad Crager (00:37):
Thanks Christopher. I'm excited to be here with you.

Christopher (00:39):
Fort Collins, Colorado, the northern municipal ISP in the front range. Can you tell us, just for people who haven't been there and seen the wonder of a city that has undergrounded, its aerial utilities, just what an amazing place it is?

Chad Crager (00:55):
Yeah, it really is, and I forget when I go to other places that we've done that because you [00:01:00] get used to anything. And so back in the eighties a decision was made for a lot of reasons, reliability, long-term o and m to underground our utilities and it wasn't an easy feat because of that, though we have extreme reliability, frankly, the aesthetics are great. You don't have these poles everywhere. The only exception to that is going to be your giant poles coming into the city from the maker of the electric. And so the distribution is underground, but because of that, what's [00:01:30] great about it is when the city decided to do our own broadband, we decided to be underground as well. We had to be. And the reason was if we made the investment, the pretty significant investment to underground all of our electric, then we need to do the same for our broadband.

And that's not just the fiber and conduit that is all the way to, there are no pedestals, meaning everything is underground, which makes it great, but it also makes it a very difficult build. The other thought was when we started this [00:02:00] that we would be able to use a significant amount of empty conduit that was left over when we put the electric underground. But as time took place, decades between when that was underground and we started quite a bit of that conduit was unavailable, whether it's freeze thaw or trees or whatever it may be. And so we had to bore much more than we thought. But I will say that having our broadband underground, about half of it's an electric conduit. The other half is next to it. There is an [00:02:30] extreme amount of respect when contractors see red locate cake marks on the ground that signify electric for the orange that are sometimes hit more often than the red. So I will say it's great to be in a town that has such significant reliability and not just in our electric, but now in our broadband space because we don't have anything at Ontario.

Christopher (02:51):
And now you're in one of the larger cities that have this, I mean I would say third or fourth largest city probably. What's the population nowadays

Chad Crager (02:58):
We're about 170,000. [00:03:00] That does not include Colorado State University, which is almost 35,000. And so we are a college town, university town, and it's a great place to be. For those that don't know what, we're actually closer to the closest major city, closest to the Wyoming border, kind of tucked up against the foothills than we are say of Denver. Great place to live, great organization, the city of Fort Collins. And that we are able to do a lot of innovative things because the residents here trust us [00:03:30] and we are able to go forward with things that a lot of cities, other cities that I've worked in just weren't able to do. So the support of the city is high here. And with that we have responsibility to offer great services like broadband.

Christopher (03:43):
And the network started being built by Coleman. Keane was the head of it. He left. And then you've been in charge for a year or so now. How long has it been?

Chad Crager (03:51):
It's been a couple years since I've been Couple years,

Christopher (03:54):
Yeah. Goes by quick.

Chad Crager (03:57):
It does, and it's so much nicer to be now in a kind of [00:04:00] growth phase, an operational phase than in a build phase when you're building out one of the city's largest capital projects ever and hitting maybe every sprinkler system in town. It's much nicer to be in this situation now,

Christopher (04:14):
Although we'll talk in the conversation about how there's so many people in apartment buildings that it may actually be fewer sprinklers than you might think, although still an astoundingly high number. And we're also going to talk a bit about the role of the electric utility that the city owns [00:04:30] in terms of how everything's structured. But before we get into that, I think I want to make sure people have a sense of why this is important, right? It's a big project. You noted that. I think it's a tremendously important project. It's difficult, I'm sure, and I always want to know why is it worth doing for the city to take on whatever amount of risk you might say it is. Why was it worth doing

Chad Crager (04:52):
Little history to why we're even in the business of broadband as a city is that back in about 2015, the city [00:05:00] realized that they needed a bigger investment from the incumbents into the Internet that people had at home. The city asked those incumbents to come and talk to them, and the question was, when are you going to invest in the city of Fort Collins? And the answer from both was, we don't have any business plans, which at the time wasn't necessarily the right answer. And so back then that was back, if you remember when Google was announcing the first Google fiber city, [00:05:30] people started doing polar plunges and naming their cities after 'em. And my analogy to everybody, it's kind of like what happened in the seventies with that coffee shop in Pikes Place markets, and it started the coffee phase with Starbucks. Well, when Google did that, all of a sudden, even though Fort Collins didn't win, that it made them realize that they can do this on their own.

And so they began a journey. It started initially was going to be a public private partnership for different reasons that didn't work [00:06:00] out. The city then decided to do it on our own. Not an easy thing to do, but we started that project and really in 2019 was when the first customer was lit up. And I can say now that we're done, it has been fantastic. And for those that we do have those, let's say libertarians that believe the government shouldn't be in the broadband space, I will say, well, you don't need to get connection. You're happy to get our incumbents. And they've invested a lot of money and making [00:06:30] them more competitive. They lowered prices. And so in the end, it's a win-win for our residents, not just for connection but for the residents of Fort Collins. And that's the hat we wear, which is really important because most broadband, if you're a private broadband provider, the reality is there's a bottom line that you have to share with stockholders here. We certainly have to meet our financial goals and pay back our bonds, but we are investing already back into our network with the goal to make our residents life as best [00:07:00] as it can be.

Christopher (07:01):
It's a great answer. What I'm always looking for is the emotional answer if I'm trying to convince someone. So that's a great data answer. Will you tell me a story about someone's grandma? Yeah,

Chad Crager (07:13):
I mean, the emotional answer is we believe that it should be a right to have one gig symmetrical Internet in the city of Fort Collins. I mean, one example, and I know you'll get into this, Christopher, is to talk about the digital inclusion piece. We knew from the beginning that we wanted [00:07:30] everyone to get one gig symmetrical Internet, and we set aside from the very beginning, 6% of our revenue into a digital inclusion fund. And what that does is it provides a number of things, but one of the things it does is it provides a digital equity rate. And for those that qualify, instead of paying $70 for our one gig symmetrical speed, you pay $20 for one gig symmetrical speed. We do not [00:08:00] throttle that $50 difference is made up from the 6% that we set aside. So now all of a sudden we're seeing folks that couldn't afford the Internet, being able to get the Internet in a way that's not throttle in a way that serves families in a way that kids can go to school, whatever the need is.

We very much believe in that. Their story upon story of folks that got horrible or unreliable, generally very slow Internet and they weren't [00:08:30] able to do things. And unlike every story around Internet these days, of course it hit during covid. And with that, now there's such a desire to get not just high speed and reliability, but the one thing that I want us as municipal providers to hit on is the customer experience. The reality is there are competitors that offer speeds in certain areas of town that may be as high, at least the download, but not the upload. But the customer experience just is not what our customers [00:09:00] want, and that's why they're coming in droves to not just us, but other municipal providers because again, it's the experience of the resident. It's not necessarily the bottom line and getting as much as you can out of that tiny turn,

Christopher (09:15):
The a CP program is starting to go away. And one of the things that we love about what you're doing, which I could only say that Hillsborough is doing something that's similar with their highlight network, [00:09:30] and Chattanooga has their own approach where they've tapped into a lot of local philanthropy to be able to provide a wonderful benefit outside of federal support. Speaking of that local customer experience, do you assign a private investigator to check into people when they try to sign up for the low income program and take all day for them to get onto it like the federal government does with a CP?

Chad Crager (09:52):
We do not. We make it as easy as possible. What's great that I didn't mention is that we've actually established an app called Get Foco, [00:10:00] and in Fort Collins there's about nine different aspects that you can get income qualified rates for. And what was happening is they would be all over the place. You might have to go to the parks department on Tuesday at two o'clock in order to get that rate. We realized that is not easy for the resident. So we've combined everything into one app that someone can apply for online and get not only a connection discount, but it can include your utility bill, it includes [00:10:30] registering your dog, it includes your parks things. And so that's where we're really trying to make it easier, again, not just on connection, but on all aspects of the city to make it sort of a one-stop shop. And because our utilities are certainly checking folks with their requirements, basically once a year, folks have to give a very minimum amount of information making sure that they still meet those qualifications to be in that program.

Christopher (10:57):
Now, if we were to break [00:11:00] for a second here, I don't want people to lose track of this, but what you're saying, I think this resonates with me, and I'm curious, you said you've been to some other cities and networks. Sometimes people will come to me and they'll be like, I want my city to be like Fort Collins. We need to build a fiber network. And what you just described is similar to what I saw in Chattanooga, which was that some communities have spent years or decades improving their processes, being more responsive to citizen needs and things like that. And then they might also build a network, other cities build [00:11:30] a network and they may succeed or they may not, but they also haven't captured that sort of relentless drive to meet local needs and be that responsive. And I wanted to highlight for a second for people that there's a lot of work to be done in a lot of local governments to achieve what you just talked about. It's impressive.

Chad Crager (11:47):
Well, and I think it starts with just the attitude of folks that work in our shop. I mean, I will say that one of our incumbents has provided me fantastic employees that we're looking for almost a purpose [00:12:00] and not paycheck. And with that, if the entire culture is to do whatever we can for every resident in the community or the region that really has to start there and not something that's put on a piece of paper once a year. And so I can't underline enough, and it has to be at the beginning when we started setting aside the 6%, I'm going to be honest, there were days when I sure wish I had that 6% in revenue.

Christopher (12:24):
Yeah, no, when you're building, yeah.

Chad Crager (12:26):
Yeah. When you're building, you have bond when you twice a year when we have our principles [00:12:30] due for our bonds. But the reality is if we didn't start, then we would never start. It's almost impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube after you start. So what I would say to any of those, one, I'd love to share the mistakes that we made. We certainly made a host of them and things that I would do differently, and I would say start from the beginning with what you want your true north and your vision for your area to be, because you can't just change it. It takes a lot and it is moving a giant ship [00:13:00] in order to do it.

Christopher (13:01):
Yeah, that's one other thing that I would, again, sort of advice for other folks. If you come across a network that says they didn't make any big mistakes, then that just means they haven't figured out that they've made big mistakes and they've got an iceberg in their future.

Chad Crager (13:14):
Right, exactly. It's like any relationship. If someone says they've never had a disagreement with someone that they're friends with or even your partner, well then how do you really know those folks? So that's how it is. I think we've all learned or we should learn through everything that we do. And [00:13:30] that's certainly the case in the broadband space.

Christopher (13:32):
One of the things that has always struck me where Fort Collins came in differently than others is at a time when most municipal fiber networks that were being built had to hit a take rate of 35, 37, 40 2% to break even in the business plan, Fort Collins business plan called for a 28% take rate, which was much lower. I attributed that to being able to take advantage of a lot of conduit that was already there. But as you noted, [00:14:00] a fair amount of that conduit turned out not to be the case. How is it that Fort Collins hasn't had a higher take rate needed in order to pay all your bills?

Chad Crager (14:12):
Well, I will say the original business plan was great on paper, but the reality is once we started the construction, I wouldn't say that you could get rid of that original business plan, but it became outdated very quickly. The original business plan didn't call for video product. It didn't call for twenty four seven three sixty five technical support. [00:14:30] So the original business plan, it meant well, but didn't include an increased cost to build out to MDUs. And I know we'll talk about into use in a minute, but that's extremely important. So we have completely updated our financials and what we forecasted are different than what that business plan showed. I'll note that it did say 28% residential. It also said 40% commercial in the first two years, which is almost, I wouldn't say almost, it's impossible to hit those goals, [00:15:00] whether it's property owner not giving you permission or being able to actually construct to all of those things. So I appreciate that business plan. I think it gave a lot of good truth that we had at the time, and it was factual. But it's like anything that when you're finished with a project, I think any startup has to adjust based on the reality that they face, including marketing conditions at the time.

Christopher (15:22):
So you've come to more of a standard sort of situation.

Chad Crager (15:26):
Our stake rate right now is 37%.

Christopher (15:29):
That's really good. [00:15:30] And it's what, four years after turning on the first customer? So some neighborhoods have only had it for two years or so.

Chad Crager (15:36):
Yeah, some neighborhoods have had it for six months. And so we actually finished what I call our main build out six months ago. And I don't celebrate that we're done with the build out because the reality is with 40% of MDUs, quite a bit of people that live in Fort Collins haven't received Internet. And it would be a little bit pompous for me to make that announcement.

Christopher (15:57):
And I also just wanted to note that one of the things [00:16:00] we've seen in places that number of 40% of commercial opportunities in the first two years, when you announce to the world, you're building a network, you are telling the incumbent providers to lock small, medium, and large businesses into three year contracts. And so that first year your salespeople trying to make those business connections, it is very hard to hit their targets. I think so

Chad Crager (16:22):
It really is. And our biggest really hurdle is meeting demand. And so we are doing what we can. We're [00:16:30] getting more contractors on board. It's a great problem to have, but the reality is it's still a problem in that that's missed out revenue. So again, something we learn is I wish we could have gotten more contractors faster. At the same time, you've got to balance that with having enough revenue to pay for those contractors. And so it's all a balancing game with the finances.

Christopher (16:52):
Have you thought about seeing if Dion Sanders would help you recruit?

Chad Crager (16:56):
No, I have not. I appreciate that suggestion, Christopher.

Christopher (17:00):
[00:17:00] So 40% apartment buildings, condo units, what we call MDUs, multi-dwelling units. How has that made your build significantly different from most of the municipal fiber projects we've seen?

Chad Crager (17:13):
Yeah, what I've seen on average, most cities have about 15% multi-dwelling units. One of the reasons I think is because we're a university town Colorado state with 40%, it just means that when I say the main build out's done, that means for single family residential. [00:17:30] And it means that quite a bit of boring still needs to take place because remember, we're underground from the streets to the edge of those buildings because we have to go across massive landscaping or parking lots or whatnot. So while we continue to get demand, we are still about six months backlog, and we are striving to make that more like six to eight weeks. Luckily, we are finished with 31% of MDUs can actually sign up, which is huge. But we've got teams [00:18:00] not only going out to get a ride of entry at the very beginning to those that are constructing and getting into every single MDU. So our struggle again is not just the time it takes, but also we had to really adjust some of our forecast for the cost. Get to an MDU is a more expensive thing because of the additional boring than would take place for a single family residential home.

Christopher (18:24):
Now when you get to the MDU, are you running fiber to the unit? Are you [00:18:30] running fiber to a place and then throwing it on Cat five E or Cat six or Cat seven or CAT 22?

Chad Crager (18:36):
Great question, and I know you hate this answer, but it depends. A lot of the new builds that go up, because we've built for years, we built strong relationships with developers through bulk deals. And with that, we are actually being put in the actual units during construction, those we call Brownfield or those that exist today. Sometimes we're doing a wrap on a townhome situation on the ends of [00:19:00] the town homes. That's an easy knit box on the ends on the interior, you got to do a wrap. We've had a few where we had to run some tracking on the outside. A lot of MDUs, the bigger ones we're finding have some type of communications room. So if we can tap into that, we can get through CAT six into the individual units. But it's definitely something that we're always looking for the best tool in our tool belt to fit whatever that MDU is.

What we find is those cities, I'm sure [00:19:30] that have the more historic mdu when we're in what we call Old Town and you've got a MDU that's over a hundred years old, there's really not a good way to get into each unit. So that's where we start to look for some wireless solutions that would be different than most other MDUs. But MDUs are always going to be our biggest challenge, partially because there's so many of 'em, and the cost partially is because there is more. We'll see the fiber from time to time, and that's not what people want. So again, we're looking, we're working with other vendors, [00:20:00] we're actually talking to other cities on how do you do it because we don't have all the answers. And I'd love to talk to others that do or anyone that says they do, I'd love to talk to them.

Christopher (20:09):
Yeah, that's one of the questions that I hadn't asked a whole lot in the past. And then when I would talk to people building the networks, they're always sort of like, what are you hearing? How are people doing the, no one wants to end up with just wireless in the hallways. It might be good enough in some circumstances for some folks, but you don't want to make that choice for people and you want to have that future [00:20:30] upgradeability, I'm sure.

Chad Crager (20:31):
Yeah. Actually what we had recently was a building that was constructed and they said, well, we don't need your service. We just want one fiber. We want to give everyone wireless. And that was awesome for the first three people that moved in, but once you had 30, 40 people in there, they were complaining left and right. Now, luckily, we had convinced the developer to run our fiber during construction, so all we had to do was connect to that fiber, if you will, and each unit got [00:21:00] it. But it is a lesson learned is it sounds great to offer wireless, but the reality is we're just not there with the speeds and reliability that we are with ethernet.

Christopher (21:09):
And over the next few years, we might be in a really good situation with the six gigahertz coming on Wi-Fi seven and stuff like that, but another four or five years after that, who knows. And so you don't want to don't, well,

Chad Crager (21:21):
It's always the new product we have to serve, whatever that product is. And so there will be a point when people are actually buying a vision pro to do [00:21:30] something other than TikTok. And when they do that, that's when people will need these Wi-Fi speeds and hopefully it will be stability for those types of devices.

Christopher (21:38):
Right. You don't want to close up the walls before you've gotten that stuff in. So outside of Fort Collins, you've got Larimer County, there's a fair amount of need around there, some eligible for grant funding, some not. What's your role in all of that?

Chad Crager (21:54):
We have been having great conversations with Larimer County for years because in Larimer County, there's three [00:22:00] cities that have municipal broadband. It's US city of Loveland and town of Estes Park up in the mountains. And with that Larimer County quickly realized that as we finished our builds, there was really a digital divide being created between its rural residents and those that live in what they call the urban areas. And so we've been talking to them looking for opportunities. About six months ago, Larimer County provided funding for us to extend [00:22:30] our city, our connection network beyond the city limits into what we call the growth management area, the GMA. And that's sort of that area between what's urban and what's rural. What's hard about GMA areas is, I think this is true everywhere because they have high enough speeds, you really will not be able to meet any type of grant requirements that have low speeds.

And so the county recognized that about six or nine months ago, gave us some funding and we're about to build out to that area. Just recently, [00:23:00] we worked with the county on more rural areas. We submitted four projects for capital Projects fund, and we were successful in getting all four of those awarded to us, which is huge because it's going into rural areas, it's going into Colorado State's Mountain campus. They actually provided a funding match, which is huge for them. Now they can turn it into a real learning area. It provides not only residents and businesses in Larimer County, but an important fact is it helps us greatly with emergency communication where we've had [00:23:30] three, four years ago, 2020 was the largest wildfire in the state of Colorado, was in Larimer County, which leads to massive flooding when all that soil has gone. And so emergency management is a massive issue for Larimer County.

So since then we partner with them. We do not have the funding because we are just starting out to provide any matches outside of the city limits. Larimer County understands that, and they're actually providing the match. And this [00:24:00] recent grants we won, we will share 25% of our revenue until we pay back the 25% match that they provided. Once the payback is done, we will collect all of the revenue. And so that's really important as we get into this space because we haven't been around for 10 years where we have revenue coming in without bonds. We had to establish a mechanism in order to pay for those things. But it's exciting that we're part of the solution. The state of Colorado doesn't have restrictions on [00:24:30] being in your service area only. So we could expand beyond what our electric, which is generally our city limits in Larimer County and get into those mountainous regions, those areas with topography, which make it really difficult for wireless providers. And so it's really exciting. I'll note that we're also working with the regional electric provider, and so we're attaching their poles. We will not be underground in the mountains, mainly due to rock, as well as some [00:25:00] forest service permits, which are much easier if you attach to existing poles.

Christopher (25:05):
And then you have a pretty good relationship with those other munis. It's not a situation of intense competition and undercutting each other.

Chad Crager (25:14):
No, we have a great relationship with them. I think we actually have Northern Colorado Community Fiber, which is, it's an entity that we're part of Loveland, Estes, Larimer County, and some others. Because we see the importance of solving things regionally. We learn things from each other, we [00:25:30] support each other. I know connection provides supports to both Loveland and Estes Park with our technical service reps with our back haul. I'll also mention that not in Larimer County, but just south of us is Longmont, which was the first city in the state of Colorado to offer municipal fiber. So it's pretty incredible man to have four municipalities within spitting distance from each other to have such strong municipal fiber, which not only offers great speeds, but is really [00:26:00] just people are passionate about what we provide. I'd say we have super fans, and that's a reflection of the service that we give, not just in our speeds, but in that customer experience. If people do have any issues,

Christopher (26:13):
And I'm sure he'll be listening, so we can just give a shout out to Glenn who did a lot of work, him and Colin early on to make sure that this would be happening. So

Chad Crager (26:22):
Yeah, that's a great point. I mean, we have some very passionate residents that we are standing on the shoulders of, and that's the only reason that this exists. And so [00:26:30] I'm very grateful to those that have been part of connection or those residents that were the catalyst for starting this.

Christopher (26:36):
Now I want to talk a little bit about the structure because it's fascinating and it's also important, I think, for people to have a sense of how to do things differently. And I learned just before we started the interview that you changed some of the structure recently. So can you just walk us through how you're structured in terms of your department?

Chad Crager (26:57):
Sure. So in general, around utilities, [00:27:00] Fort Collins has water utilities, and that includes your water, your stormwater, and your wastewater. And we also have our electric or what we call light and power. So those four utilities have traditionally been under one utilities executive director. And then connection or the broadband utility has been separate, and there's been discussions for a while about making it part of the others as a fifth utility. We've made the decision for right now [00:27:30] to make it separate. And part of the reasons for that is, one, it's competitive nature. We have to be very nimble. We have to do things differently. Two, I think one of the reasons is that because it kind of goes along with being competitive, we really had to market stronger. I know that's part of the competitive, but being in that space of marketing to others of sales, we really couldn't be under the umbrella at the time [00:28:00] of being part of all the others because the reality is there's certain processes that are in place as part of the other utilities for good reason that really weren't applicable for connection.

Now, I will say that we're looking at our org chart all the time to see what makes sense, but there have been things that where I say even the customer service reps or the CSRs for years connection, we had the utility CSRs. They were given a fifth utility [00:28:30] for a while, and that was connection on top of their daily duties. And what we found was one that was a lot of extra stuff to give one CSR, but also the typical CSR that is in a city utility does not have to worry about retention. People are not calling to cancel their water or their power, and that was extremely important to us. Luckily, our churn is less than 1%, but we still needed to make sure and track those numbers closely, do what we could do outbound calls, things that typically [00:29:00] don't happen in typical utility CSR.

So while we're constantly looking to see what the org chart looks like for now, it makes sense to keep 'em separate, and no one's perfect at this. I know certain cities do it different ways. Fort Collins, this is what makes sense right now, and I'm grateful for it because we're able to really pay attention to the market and act extremely fast, and we have the support from the city to do that being separate. I'll also say that because we are sharing light and power infrastructure, [00:29:30] we'll always be very close to that group as far as any kind of maintenance, any kind of upgrades, we're constantly going to coordinate and we have to stay integrated with them. But right now we're separate from them.

Christopher (29:43):
And for people who are new to the utility space, even if you're going to go unquote off grid with solar panels, you're still on the grid. So the retention issue is just you don't have a competing water system in most cities. And so [00:30:00] for those utilities, that experience of dealing with people who are calling up to cancel is different. I would guess that with the churn rate of you said less than 1%, it's the same thing we've seen with a lot of muni fiber, which is that mostly people are disconnecting if they're leaving town.

Chad Crager (30:15):
That's right. And there's nothing we can do about that,

Christopher (30:19):
Although I don't know why people would be leaving that town. I mean, it seems like one of those things that everyone's moving into,

Chad Crager (30:24):
Right? I can't imagine leaving either, but you never know where people's journey takes.

Christopher (30:30):
[00:30:30] I was just up there, and I do have to say, I mean if you look at Loveland, Longmont, Fort Collins, I've only barely touched Estes Park, but they're lovely, wonderful places to be. The last thing I wanted to ask you is just to make it clear, you mentioned that you're at 37%. I don't know exactly how long-term your debt is, but I think it is just helpful because one of the things we see is these ridiculous claims from an academic here or there or someone else [00:31:00] that actually you're not going to be able to pay off your debt and that you're just basically, it's some kind of shell game moving numbers around. How is it looking in terms of paying off your debt within the expected timeframe?

Chad Crager (31:12):
Yeah, we are definitely on track. I'll note that our revenue continues to grow 40% more than 45 than 40%. I think it was 45% last year, year over year, which is massive for any startup. And I want to underline that. That's not why we're in this. And [00:31:30] we have to pay attention to that because we're obligated to our residents to pay back those bonds. And so we're on track with paying back our debt. We are paying very close attention to that. We are putting things in place, so we're have a return on investment process. So because we're not, we're running a business inside of a city, which is unique and also fantastic, and we have the support of Fort Collins, but it's also a little bit separate entity, but we have to stay [00:32:00] within our bounds and we are on track to pay those bonds back. And I would say that basically if you do this right and you provide not just the Internet, but an amazing customer experience, you can see those type of revenue gains because it's such a need within most communities to see this. And the other thing is you'll see an investment from your incumbents, which isn't bad either, because in the end, as municipalities [00:32:30] are doing this for the residents of the areas that we live in,

Christopher (32:35):
Yes. Yeah, it is never the goal of any muni that I've met to a competitor out of business. You want to force them to compete, you want to force them to do more, but you're not looking to try and get, I mean, if you get a hundred percent market share, fine, but you're not sitting there plotting. You're just trying to figure out how to make sure people's needs are met and you can pay your bills.

Chad Crager (32:54):
And what's great is we've already invested back into the network, and I don't like to get technical, but [00:33:00] we're already XG spon the entire city. So we're offering one, two, and 10 gig speeds right now to any resident that wants it at any time, which is huge and years ahead of what our competition can do. And so that's really important as we take whatever revenue we get, we're making sure not just to pay back our bonds, but also investing appropriately into the network so it stays state of the art.

Christopher (33:24):
I actually do have one other question, which is I think the hardest thing, and you could tell me I'm wrong. I think the hardest thing [00:33:30] for a city that wants to do what you're doing is to find a person like you that gets it, that can do it. And so I'm curious, what is your background and how did you come to this work?

Chad Crager (33:40):
Yeah, that's a great question, Christopher. So I do not have a background in telecommunications, which is interesting. So my background is actually in all types of transportation that you can imagine from super tankers to bicycle programs. And I moved to the city to actually be the city engineer for [00:34:00] Fort Collins, which ironically was to put permits in place for broadband when it started and what basically the city was. There was an opportunity where they needed a little bit help with the construction build out. I moved over to connection and quickly learned the telecommunications aspect. And I will say that I feel strongly that leaders don't always have to be the subject matter experts. As a matter of fact, it's not always the best thing for a subject matter [00:34:30] expert because then they don't trust their staff nor hire people that are much smarter than them to do the job.

And so it's been amazing that just create and have this amazing team here. But I think it's also amazing that I was part of the city prior to us having a broadband and being part of other cities that I've lived and worked in, and I think it's important if other cities can do this, to bring someone on board that has some municipal experience. Not always, but it certainly helps when it comes [00:35:00] to having a passion for a community they live in. I'm also lucky enough to where most days I ride a bicycle to work, I live and work in the city. There's a lot of passion that comes with that, and so being proud of your city is super important. So I would say for those that are considering doing that, looking for a leader that's passionate and can lead a team, look for someone that's had some municipal experience. Now, that's not always the case, but it certainly helps because if the passion is going to be the resident and not the bottom [00:35:30] line, you've got to have that background because we've got to be a little bit separate, but also very integrated into the rest of the city for our success.

Christopher (35:38):
Yeah. Well, if I was thinking about doing this, I would be figuring out how to take a little trip and visit, certainly town of Vestas Park, they're busy. They're a smaller town trying to manage all this, but Brianna Reed, Hormel, Valerie, dod and hers staff, and then you visit Longmont, Loveland and Fort [00:36:00] Collins to get a sense of how they've done things. Y'all have done some things differently and you can get a real sense of trade-offs, I think.

Chad Crager (36:06):
Yeah, and we're all doing things a little different, but we all have extreme respect for each other. We meet quite a bit, not just us as the executive directors, but also as our staff. That's also important, right? We're not competing with each other. So I would also encourage communities if they're not ready to find someone that's somewhat near 'em, so staff can meet preferably in person to go over this and talk about their, [00:36:30] their struggles, and then go get a beer afterwards and really get to know each other. I think that's what allows us to be successful.

Christopher (36:36):
Yeah, no, that's really good advice. People don't do enough of that, and that's how you avoid making mistakes, and that's how you recover from the mistakes is just those conversations. Exactly. Thank you so much for your time today, Chad.

Chad Crager (36:48):
Yeah, thanks Christopher. I appreciate it.

Ry Marcattilio (36:50):
We have transcripts for this and other podcasts slash broadbandbits. Email [00:37:00] with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is at Community Nets. Follow community stories on Twitter, the handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly [00:37:30] While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Sby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through creative comments.