A Q & A With Ron Kormos, Chief Strategy Officer
A Greater Waco Chamber Infrastructure Summit
Listen to the Interview
Widely respected as a thought leader in the industry, Ron Kormos, FiberLight Chief Strategy Officer, was recently invited to speak at an event hosted by the Waco Chamber of Commerce, “Building the Texas of Tomorrow – A Greater Waco Chamber Infrastructure Summit.” During a panel discussion with Kevin Fletcher, External Legislative Affairs for AT&T and Glenn Hegar, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Ron spoke about bringing broadband to Texas, the critical need for middle-mile service, the role of public-private partnerships in expanding infrastructure availability and what’s next for the industry.
I think the pandemic squeezed us in many ways. We found out a lot of things that worked well and some that did not work well. What exposed gaps did you see in the broadband world?
I think one of the biggest changes we saw was the shift going from working at the office to working at home. Just five years ago, I cannot remember getting on a Teams call more than once a week. Now I am in virtual meetings six or eight times a day via Teams, Google, WebEx, or other platform. That is the biggest area where I saw the shift.
The transition to virtual work has made the infrastructure gaps easy to identify. How many times does your screen freeze up on video calls because someone does not have enough bandwidth? Can you imagine the impact if you were attending a virtual medicine appointment with your physician and the screen froze?
Another one of the issues we are observing is the attempt to get workers back into the office, and you cannot do it. We would lose 20% of our workforce if moving back to the office was forced. I think that is the biggest thing that we are seeing; we have become an at-home society almost exclusively.
Opportunities to work with the Texas Broadband Development Office
Ron, from an industry perspective, what do you want to get out of the broadband development office?
Let me tell you just a little bit about FiberLight. We own and operate our network, we have about 11,000 miles of our own network that we have built here in the state of Texas. One of the things that I want to emphasize here on the importance of the middle mile provider. We provide access. We have over 8,500 miles in the state of Texas that we consider to be rural. In order to connect these areas, we need more middle mile infrastructure.
One of the things that came to the surface after the infrastructure bill was released is that they only allocated $1 billion to the middle mile and some $40 billion to the last mile. Last mile is very important but we all know that without the middle mile, the last mile does not work. Take water for instance, you can be in a subdivision and have great water, sewer, and everything else, but if it doesn’t connect to the big water line, you do not have water. Same thing with networks, you must have middle-mile connectivity out to that area before you ever get to the last mile. Last mile is important.
We have enabled over 200 WISP and ISPs on our network to deliver last mile services. We are basically a carrier’s carrier. We sell to the WISP and the ISPs, but there is a lot more money that needs to be put in the mid-mile piece. That is what we want to see out of the broadband committee.
Comparing broadband access in Texas to other states
From the industry side of things, how does Texas compare or even parts of Texas compare to what is going on in the other states in the nation?
We are certified in 21 states and of that we have active operations in eight different states. I know AT&T has a lot more than that, but Texas is well beyond the other states. Just last week I met with Colorado ’s Department of Transportation’s director of fiber and their biggest concern is how to charge carriers for access to the right of way instead of how to build more broadband? I had dinner a Georgia State Senator, and they are starting to realize that the charges that they were incurring upon the carriers has inhibited the State of Georgia from broadband. They charge a dollar a foot just to get on their Right of Way. States are starting to realize that either they have to drop that rate, or they need to start partnering.
At FiberLight, we love to partner. Let’s partner, let’s figure out how we can work together to deliver broadband. I think we have over 7,000 miles on TxDOT Right of Way today. What we are saying is, “Hey, we will allow it, give you fiber on our network or connectivity,” and also, I’m working with them on everything I do as far as build. Any new Texas Department of Transportation Right of Way, I’m letting them know, “Hey, I’m building here, do you want to put a duct in?” I think that’s where you got to go to partnering, which is one of our topics later…
The role of public-private partnerships
Would anyone like to add anything about the role of public-private partnerships?
We work with a lot of different cities, states, and also different counties. We are working with Jasper County, Newton County, working with Burnett County, and working with all the Panhandle area right now in economic development. I think it is critical on the public- private partnership, because let’s face it, us and AT&T, we are for-profit companies. We must make a profit in order to pay our people. It is not practical to say, “Let’s go out to an area that only has 10 people living there.” You cannot make the money to cover what you have to spend. So we need government involvement to help us deliver network to these underserved areas and rural areas.
The future of the industry
Any closing remarks you want to say?
The only thing I would add, I know we already talked about partnerships and middle-mile, but I think the next thing is to always consider, “what’s next?” Once we have that connectivity, I try to drive into our people to always be thinking about, “what is next on the horizon?” We must continue to improve. We need to get it done more efficiently in the industry. We already see that the workforce is way low. We have got to make that up in automation and the only way to do that is to get broadband out there and start utilizing that. I understand that content delivery is exploding. It is a $13 billion industry, and it is growing at a rate of 30% per year in the United States. So that is where I think we need to challenge ourselves and ask, “what’s next on the horizon?”
Yeah, that is a great comment. Infrastructure, whether it is broadband or some of the other components we talked about, those are the mechanisms that enable humans to thrive as we look at the state and want to see it continue to thrive. I want to thank you for the part you are playing in that, it is very much appreciated. Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.