Brownsville, Texas – Richard Hogue has been named President of BTX Fiber, the newly created internet service provider (ISP) that is building a fiber-based network that will make high-speed broadband service available throughout Brownsville and beyond.
After three years of planning, the project officially launched in October with plans to install 100 miles of middle-mile cable and another 500 miles of last-mile cable for the final connection to every home and business in the Brownsville community. Long-term plans are to expand the ISP’s network to other communities throughout the area.
Hogue has more than 20 years of telecommunications construction, installation, and management experience, including six years as a technical operations manager for Comcast in three states and two years as network operations director for digital communications provider Viya in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He most recently was general manager for Point Broadband in Hagerstown, Maryland, and is relocating to Brownsville.
“Brownsville is quite literally pushing out the leading edge in broadband internet availability to the community. BTX Fiber is thrilled to be crucial to this effort in partnership with the City of Brownsville and so many other critical stakeholders,” Hogue said.
Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez made closing the digital divide in Brownsville a priority after the city was twice named one of the least connected in the country.
Hogue said, “I personally am excited about the potential this rollout has to positively impact so many facets of life here in the Brownsville community and I’m looking forward to leading BTX Fiber as we build deep, new business and community relationships as well as a new internet network.”
BTX Fiber is a subsidiary of Lit Communities, a Birmingham, Alabama-based firm that takes communities through the research, planning, and installation steps of creating state-of-the-art fiber networks.
Brownsville has invested nearly $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to build the middle mile network. Lit Communities was co-founded in 2019 by Brownsville native Rene Gonzalez – now the company’s chief strategy officer – and has committed $70 million for the network’s fiber-to-the-premise buildout.
Other partners in the project include the Brownsville Public Utilities Board, Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, Greater Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, Port of Brownsville, Brownsville Independent School District, Texas Southmost College, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
A Conversation with Broadband Attorney/Consultant/Advocate, Lindsay Miller
Lindsay Miller is President of Lit Consulting, part of Lit Communities, a broadband consulting, construction, and design company that collaborates with communities across the country in public-private partnerships (P3s) to deploy fiber and wireless networks and address local digital divides.
Miller has more than 15 years of experience in broadband. Her tenure has included working as a public affairs attorney and broadband advocate focused on state and national policy and helping to forge and empower the P3s needed to grow this critical infrastructure and close digital divides across our county.
Here she shares her thoughts on the unprecedented opportunities for communities of all sizes to foster widespread access to and utilization of the digital technologies that underpin our daily lives.
First, what makes now such a critical time in community-led broadband, and what role does your company play in fostering these opportunities? Lindsay Miller: If there can be a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s the widespread awareness of this pervasive issue and injection of unprecedented amounts of funds across the country to try to address it.
As a society, we cannot let this opportunity pass, but these are complex tasks. It takes a village, sometimes literally, and no two communities are alike. Each has its unique mix of stakeholders such as schools, healthcare providers, private employers, local governments, and incumbent utility providers. And each community has its own blend of leadership and appetite for change.
To us, the process begins with assessing what’s there, where the community wants to go, and how we can help get them there. My role as President of Lit Consulting is to lead the team that provides the community assessment, service access mapping, incumbent provider analysis, financial and network modeling, and more for these communities to ultimately inform and forge their digital transformations.
As our CEO says, Lit is a Swiss Army knife, if you will, for community broadband internet expansion.
How did you get here yourself, and why the passion for this space? Lindsay Miller: I certainly didn’t grow up thinking “I want to work in broadband.” But I was fortunate to fall into it while serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member after college.
However, unlike many of my colleagues at Lit, I’m not a technology or construction person. I have degrees in psychology and public policy and a law degree. My work with AmeriCorps, my experience at the Federal Communications Commission, and later as Executive Director of Connect Ohio and as Broadband Research and Policy Counsel for Connected Nation grew my commitment to closing our nation’s digital divides. I then practiced broadband and telecommunications law with a large Midwest law firm for several years, predominantly representing governments, before joining Lit Communities.
And I’m thrilled to be here. Social impact is woven into the fabric of Lit Communities and it’s very invigorating. I get to work daily with colleagues and community leaders who share my passion for broadband access, digital inclusion and digital equity within every community and its institutions.
A silver lining to COVID-19? Can you elaborate? Lindsay Miller: The rush to work from home, learn from home, shop from home, you name it, that resulted from the COVID-19 shutdowns underscored the need for ubiquitous, robust connectivity and prompted both the funding and communal energy to help make it happen.
The need was already there but the pandemic made it that much more acute. Our collective responses now will help create a better future and more opportunities for millions of people who otherwise faced years of continuing to go without.
But just what is sufficient service? And how should that idea come into play as we allocate resources? Lindsay Miller: For starters, it’s not just about speed and bandwidth. Those are the performance numbers that we can understand and measure, and thus the reference point for many.
But, to me, “sufficient service” is what an individual, business, or anchor institution needs to perform its day-to-day activities, and be equipped with service that can scale as those activities augment and change. It’s not simply, “do you have access to X Mbps download and Y Mbps upload,” but more so “do you have access to the speeds and reliability that you (individual, business, anchor) need to perform what you want/ need to do today and into the future.”
What are the social and economic impacts of this level of service? Lindsay Miller: In my early days in broadband, I would often have to make the connection between broadband and community and economic development in my conversations on infrastructure. That is no longer the case – broadband and development are intricately intertwined.
That was the impetus, for instance, for one of Lit Communities’ engagements. The forward-thinking leaders of Medina County in northeast Ohio worked with local utility companies and other stakeholders to utilize their rescue plan money to expand their middle- and last-mile networks. Now, existing and potential new employers and a growing number of residential neighborhoods have choices around the level of broadband they need, plus a bonus: open application technology that, for instance, lets local healthcare providers offer educational and other services through the local ISP. There’s really no limit to what they can accomplish there. Or at least no limit imposed by inadequate internet service.
Final thoughts? Lindsay Miller: The complexity of all of this is daunting, but I take comfort in knowing that none of us must do it alone. And really, you can’t.
There’s a lot of professional help out there. Companies like ours have the expertise to help assess the need and appetite for such services, access the funding, run the numbers, do the work, etc.. Plus, we know how to identify and engage the partners needed to create a successful P3 for a market if that’s the direction they choose to go. However, as one of my colleagues says, “communities are like snowflakes. No two are alike.”
But there are commonalities and, it may sound trite, but I encourage folks to talk to one another. Talk to your peers in neighboring towns or similar communities elsewhere about their experience. Talk to their providers and yours. And engage your anchor institutions early, and thoughtfully in the process!
I’ve been in this space now for 15 years and I’m still constantly learning from my colleagues in the field – many of whom are SHLB members – and finding unique ways to partner to address local challenges. I learn from their best practices and mistakes, and share mine. Share yours. Eliminating our nation’s digital divides may in fact prove to be the most powerful way to bring us all together.
Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of GigaMonster Networks, Lindsay Whitehurst has joined Lit Communities as Chief Marketing Officer for the fiber optic broadband consulting, construction, and design firm based in Birmingham, Alabama. Whitehurst will focus on overseeing, planning, developing, and executing the marketing, advertising, and business development initiatives for Lit Communities Corporate as well as each of its subsidiary companies delivering fiber internet services to consumers.
“I am truly excited about the important work that Lit Communities is accomplishing as they help municipalities bridge the digital divide,” said Whitehurst. “Lit Communities’ momentum coupled with the need for fiber broadband internet access in underserved communities across the U.S. have collided to create massive opportunities for growth. My focus will be on bringing that growth to fruition.”
Prior to co-founding GigaMonster Networks, Whitehurst served as the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for DIRECPATH, LLC, where she worked to create a partnership with DIRECTV to market many of DIRECTV’s own multifamily communities throughout the U.S., earning the DIRECTV Multifamily Group’s most coveted honor, Highest DIRECTV Penetration, three years running.
“Lindsay Whitehurst is well known within the industry for her marketing accomplishments and leadership – having achieved massive revenue growth in her previous role. We’re delighted to have her join our team and devote her energy and knowledge full-time to the broadband industry. Her experience and passion for the business combined with her deep knowledge and understanding of consumer behavior and motivations will serve Lit and, most importantly, all of our current and future clients,” said Brian Snider, founder and CEO of Lit Communities.
Whitehurst earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Management with a focus on Marketing from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Community leaders need to watch, learn, and respond as providers race for space on poles and underground.
Even before the pandemic, there was a lack of fiber infrastructure across the United States, especially in rural and low-income areas. Unfortunately, the reasons why typically center on politics and large companies controlling the narrative and monopolizing the markets. Providing a proper broadband network to these less-profitable areas was not that important, especially to big operators with limited or no competition.
But things have changed. Community broadband networks, small internet service providers, and public-private partnerships have begun popping up across the country in unprecedented numbers.
Large telcos and cable companies typically respond by doing everything they can do to stop what they call “overbuilding.” They say that happens when a fiber network is built in the same right-of-way or on an aerial pole line where an existing network exists, whether it’s copper, coax, or wireless.
But replacing old technology with new is not “overbuilding.” It’s progress. Doing otherwise is like requiring people to drive a hand-cranked antique instead of a gas-powered or electric car simply because of where they live.
Sounds crazy, right? But millions of Americans still can’t connect to the internet, as critical as that connectivity is, simply because of where they live. And millions more can’t access adequate high-speed broadband. That’s not just crazy, it’s tragic and unnecessary. Technology changes and we must adapt. Your connectivity should be no different.
A digital divide emerges, one infrastructure owner at a time
The digital divide began growing quickly as the big operators focused on fiber-to-home networks in the low-hanging fruit of densely populated big cities. At the same time, though, business models – including ours – emerged that proved you don’t need to be a large telco or cable company to build a proper communication network.
A growing number of cities and utility cooperatives began building and operating their own fiber broadband services. Multiple providers also now compete across open-access networks while public-private partnerships with a single provider or utility lease model roll out new connectivity all across the country.
Until now, the right-of-ways and utility poles only had one infrastructure owner at a time so that was manageable for most municipalities. But some forward-thinking communities saw what was coming and created dig-once and one-touch make ready policies. Lit Communities could see it, too, and began implementing strategic community initiatives that would prepare for the fast-approaching fiber boom. As a startup, it was cool to see the grassroots movement slowly gaining steam.
The race to bridge the divide has begun
Then in early 2020, COVID changed everything. A virus sent everyone home to work, attend school, and try to connect with their loved ones. The race to bridge the digital divide went into overdrive.
People learned quickly that download AND upload speeds were important and it became acutely plain that the FCC standard of 25/3 was badly outdated. Households lucky enough to have proper symmetrical services can do just fine, but those on the other side of the connectivity gap struggle now at a whole new level because of society’s growing expectations that people have such service at home, work, and school.
As rural and small-town communities alike got moving on these initiatives, Lit Communities also began to thrive because we’re built for these types of community partnerships in network deployments. But in the meantime, we’re beginning to see risks and challenges emerge that we weren’t expecting for another five years or so.
More Money = More Problems
Those challenges are fueled by the vast opportunities created by the huge influx of infrastructure money from the CARES Act and then the American Rescue Plan Act. Current and future public funds for broadband buildouts are available at a level never before imagined, creating the ability to change the connectivity story forever.
Smart city dreams can now become a reality for any community ready to move forward with providing broadband services. But can supply chains keep up? How about people with skill sets now not taught in school? How can municipalities manage this influx of permits? How can pole owners handle all the applications being submitted?
Here at Lit, we’re seeing firsthand how such fast-moving events can overwhelm local governments. For example, we proposed building a joint conduit network for future underground work in a city where we were installing fiber infrastructure. That notion was shot down and eight months later, the city can’t keep up with locate requests, and gas lines keep getting hit because the local gas company has outdated records.
Compounding the situation is that the large power company that serves that city is charging so much in make-ready costs for their poles that it makes more sense to build underground. That used to be unheard of in our industry.
That’s not all. That same large utility is starting to move its infrastructure from aerial to underground itself. And an incumbent provider that has had copper cable in the area for years is starting to switch to fiber, while yet another cable company is building fiber to the curb. Residents are complaining about all the construction and many are understandably confused and frustrated by the activity and related damage. We have planned and communicated properly where all homes will be passed in the city in a strategic manner while these other projects are just getting started.
The lessons in a land rush
What we have here is a land rush that we can expect to see repeated across the country. Who can build better infrastructure first? There are solutions. If this city had implemented a dig-once policy and clear right-of-way ordinances, and if the joint conduit proposal would have gone through, would they be in this same situation? I suspect not, but we’ll never know.
There are lessons here all municipalities need to learn. With historic levels of funds available and new startups and established players rushing to provide that new broadband infrastructure, it’s truly going to be a race to see who can get on a utility pole or in the public right-of-way first. In some places, even the large cable companies are trying to bypass city ordinances and just build without permission.
There are many ways to be prepared for this most modern version of an American land rush. What is your community doing to prepare and participate?
In this interview, Jessica Fowler, Lit Communities Chief Client Officer, talks about the exciting work being done to bridge the digital divide. Grab a cup of coffee and take a moment to listen to how Lit is addressing several challenges municipalities are facing and overcoming as actionable plans are being developed and executed and Fiber Internet is being deployed.
Broadband public affairs attorney Lindsay Miller has joined Lit Communities as President of Consulting for the fiber optic broadband consulting, construction, and design firm based in Birmingham, Alabama. She had been Partner and Vice Chair of the Government Law Group in the Columbus, Ohio, office of Ice Miller LLP.
Miller will continue her focus on helping local governments and their stakeholders build public-private partnerships for the creation and expansion of fiber and wireless networks across the country.
“I am grateful for the opportunities and growth I was provided in the broadband industry during my time with Ice Miller. I am also excited about the ongoing opportunities we’ll have to work together to guide local leaders in executing strategies for ubiquitous broadband coverage and digital inclusion,” Miller said.
Lit Communities and Ice Miller frequently collaborate on consulting engagements that include community broadband interest assessments, service access mapping, incumbent provider analysis, and financial and network modeling.
“Lindsay Miller is well known in the community broadband space and we’re delighted to have her join our team and devote her energy and knowledge full-time to the broadband industry. Her passion for the business and deep connections with its many, diverse stakeholders will serve Lit and, most importantly, all of our current and future clients,” said Brian Snider, founder and CEO of Lit Communities.
Miller joined Ice Miller in 2016 after serving as Executive Director of Connect Ohio and Broadband Research and Planning Counsel for Connected Nation, a nonprofit organization focused on facilitating broadband access, adoption, and use. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Kentucky and dual Master of Arts in Public Policy and Management and Juris Doctorate from The Ohio State University.