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  • Guest: Craig Corbin

  • Company: ETI Software

  • The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

    Craig Corbin:

    Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of The Broadband Bunch. I’m Craig Corbin. Thanks so much for joining us again today. Internet connectivity is essential for virtually every aspect of today’s existence with a need for bandwidth everywhere you go and with everything you do. This has been highlighted over the past six months, given the pandemic-influenced demands of a remote workforce, telemedicine, distance teaching and distance learning.

    Craig Corbin:

    For the past quarter century, Crown Castle has been a leader in building and operating shared communications infrastructure with a unique network of towers, small cells, and fiber, which is setting the stage for tomorrow’s most transformative technologies. Most recently, Crown Castle has been added to the Fortune 500, an annual list compiled and published by Fortune magazine that ranks the top 500 US corporations by total revenue. Our guest today is Jessica Collins, a Vertical Markets Manager at Crown Castle, responsible for leading the ongoing growth and development of fixed wireless, regional carriers, and broadcast market segments.

    A Broadband Infrastructure Journey Starts with Science and Math

    Craig Corbin:

    It’s an exciting time to be in this industry and certainly at Crown Castle. But before we get to that, let’s get some background on you and how you got to where you are. It seems like you got a head start from a science standpoint.  While you were in high school, you were doing a joint enrollment at Young Harris College in Northern Georgia. Is that right?

    Jessica Collins:

    Correct. That is going back quite a way.  Growing up in the North Georgia Mountains, my high school there had a program where you could enroll full-time in college. So my junior and senior year, I was a high school student but enrolled full-time in Young Harris. Math was my focus, but it did not remain my focus. After Young Harris, I ventured to UGA and switched over to the business side of education, because I wasn’t sure that I could do anything with math that was external and customer-facing. And I thought I might get a little bored.

    Craig Corbin:

    Athens is a phenomenal place to continue your education and UGA is a great university. You had to enjoy your time there.

    Jessica Collins:

    I did, yes. Athens can suck you in, for sure. I am one of the ones that was able to escape! My escape brought me to Atlanta for my first job out of college, which got me into the telecom world. But I am still a die-hard Dog fan, a big proponent of the football season, and do make it back to Athens quite often.

    Craig Corbin:

    So once you got to Atlanta, how did things to where you wound up on the Crown Castle team?

    Jessica Collins:

    It’s an interesting story in that I fell into it. So first job out of college, like most students, you are just happy to have a job offer. I started with a company that did staffing here in Atlanta and the customers I supported were telecommunications carriers, like AT&T, Verizon etc. I got exposed to the type of business and network that these carriers were building, and we supported all aspects of their business. Then through that initial job, I got into another job that was more services focused for the same telecommunication carriers.

    Jessica Collins:

    It also focused on the equipment and infrastructure providers in the wireless world. Crown Castle, where I’m at today, was a customer of mine at Conneticon, which is where I worked for about eight years. That company was going through some different merger and acquisitions and I decided to take a little bit of time off.  I jumped over to Thailand for a few years, lived overseas, and then came back.  When I moved back, there had been some sales changes within Crown (starting in 2017), and I ultimately joined their newly created vertical team in 2018, which is where I am today.

    Closing the Digital Divide

    Craig Corbin:

    You’re currently a Vertical Market Manager. Much of the industry now is focused on providing broadband services to the unserved and underserved communities. Crown Castle has over 80,000 route miles of fiber, more than 40,000 towers, plus more than 70,000 small cells, either on air or under contract. That’s a lot of tools that you have to work with to provide those services.

    Jessica Collins:

    Absolutely. Crown, as you mentioned it in the intro, has been in the business for a quarter of a century here. Over the last decade, we have really been focusing on enhancing our infrastructure offerings. We started in the tower business and have expanded into small cell and fiber. What our customers have been demanding in the space is an enhanced network that can handle the data capacity that consumers are demanding today. The small cell fiber component really helps in some of our urban use cases for our customers. What has happened is this has created a digital divide with the rural landscape of consumers. So our team is focused on bridging that digital divide and leveraging the assets that we have to come up with solutions that our customers can use.

    Craig Corbin:

    There’s been a white-hot spotlight on the digital divide. Especially over the last several months, more people understand just how important it is to have that connectivity, whether you are on a farm in South Georgia, or the nation’s midsection, or even in some urban areas as well. Wireless internet service providers (WISPs, in large part, are extremely well positioned to help very quickly address the digital divide and getting connectivity to people. Talk about how Crown Castle is a part of that process.

    Microsoft, Crown Castle & WISPA – Partnering to Close the Gap

    Jessica Collins:

    WISPs are filling the gaps in the rural spaces. There is a lot of attention on the rural space – from a federal level and from a state level. In the current pandemic environment, it’s even more apparent that there’s a huge broadband gap there. The way that Crown is positioning ourselves to help bridge that gap is through our partnerships with WISPA (Wireless Internet Service Provider Association), where we’re a member. We’re also part of the Competitive Carrier Association. Most recently we’ve become one of the preferred providers with the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which is helping connectivity in the rural space. So our vertical team here is focused primarily on those objectives.

    Craig Corbin:

    The Microsoft Airband Initiative in particular, is really exciting for a lot of folks.  When you have a company like Microsoft involved, it speaks volumes as to the commitment to this effort.

    Jessica Collins:

    Absolutely. The Microsoft Airband program has an initiative to reach three million Americans in the rural space by 2022. As one of their preferred providers in that program, we are helping them reach that goal and they’re helping us connect communities that we may not have access to or who may not know about Crown. Their customer base is giving us a broader reach into the rural space so we can help the rural providers and the WISPs grow their business with access to our infrastructure.

    Craig Corbin:

    You mentioned earlier that Crown Castle began a quarter century ago with a primary focus on towers. That’s a huge part of the infrastructure in place.  With the demand for collocation expanding – would you address the collocation component of what you’re doing at Crown Castle?

    Jessica Collins:

    Any WISP or any provider, for that matter, that would like to put equipment on one of our towers, there’s an application process. So a customer says, “We would like to put A, B, C on the tower,” and they take an application and submit it into Crown to put A, B, and C on the tower. Then we process that application through our engineering and real estate teams. When our internal checks are complete, ensuring that we’re meeting the jurisdiction requirements and that we’re meeting the tower capacity requirements, then we allow construction to begin. Then a customer can put equipment up, utilizing our tower assets and be on air.

    Craig Corbin:

    You also mentioned your partnership with WISPA.  I understand that Crown Castle has done some work to provide a resource guide for their members.

    Sharing Broadband Infrastructure – Guides & Resources

    Jessica Collins:

    Yes, we have different materials we’ve created for the WISP customer base to help understand and navigate a tower company such as Crown Castle. We’ve created material on the site selection process.  As in, what should a WISP look for with a tower asset? If you think about towers in general and the 40,000 towers we have nationwide, they all have different amenities. They’re in different locations and they can offer different things to a customer. So we’ve created a resource guide to help provide insights in what a customer should look for in one of our tower assets.

    Jessica Collins:

    We’ve also created material on what the application process looks like, to help simplify what could seem like a long process for a customer and help make it simple and easy for them to work with Crown. Our vertical team is dedicated to this space, so we have different sales managers that support towers based on geography. They’re experts on the local tower availability and can also be a partner to a potential WISP customer to help them through that site selection process. So if someone’s new to collocating on towers, they can speak with our teams directly to help them. And we’re happy to provide the materials that we’ve created to help simplify the overall collocation process.

    Broadband Funding

    Craig Corbin:

    Part of any broadband service deployment, for any potential provider, is getting the necessary funding. Talk about how Crown Castle’s involved in assisting in that aspect.

    Jessica Collins:

    As in assisting with state and/or federal funding initiatives?

    Craig Corbin:

    Exactly.

    Jessica Collins:

    We have a government affairs department that is working hand in hand with people on Capitol Hill, like the WISPA organization and the FCC, so that we can help our customers get what is needed from a funding side. We also have different auction-type marketing materials. For example, the CBRS spectrum auction, that’s happening right now –  we will market specifically to the bidders and the winners of those type funds to let them know about the infrastructure that Crown has, and how they can use that infrastructure to meet their network objectives.

    Jessica Collins:

    We do very targeted marketing based on auctions that might be out there. We also work with municipalities, communities, or even federal individuals on Capitol Hill, so that we can help the customers get what they need from a spectrum or fund that may be available to them.

    Meeting Broadband Demand & Services Growth

    Craig Corbin:

    You mentioned of the upcoming CBRS auction. The sheer amount of spectrum that’s required for the growth that’s anticipated over the next five years, and the amount of money that will be invested in infrastructure is mind-boggling when you look at it. From the standpoint of Crown Castle, what do you see over the next five years with regard to the focus on growth?

    Jessica Collins:

    Our focus is providing a full infrastructure offering to our customers. We’ve invested in fiber and small cell throughout the last several years and decades. And we believe that being able to provide a full infrastructure offering to a customer will help our customers be able to come to Crown as a one-stop shop to build out their networks. We know that the consumer demand for data is driving this in the industry as a whole. And we believe that our investments within small cell fiber and on the tower side are going to be able to offer a full solution to customers expanding their networks.

    Craig Corbin:

    Connectivity is now considered essential. It’s not a luxury anymore. It’s essential for so many aspects of what we do day to day, that it must be rewarding both professionally and personally to assist in providing that service.

    Jessica Collins:

    You’re absolutely right. Technology is not a luxury these days. It is a necessity. And where I find personal value with what Crown is doing with some of our rural initiatives is we’re helping underserved communities that may not have access to the connectivity that they need. Even in this current pandemic, we’re working with our customers to be able to deploy equipment faster so they can meet their customer demand and need for data.

    Jessica Collins:

    We are really positioning ourselves to listen to what the customers need and have the flexibility to provide solutions for them. So with this team within Crown, we’re very nimble, we’re very flexible to the consumer demand, and we’re working to create solutions for customers that maybe we haven’t done in the past. That’s really rewarding to see – that we’re helping bridge the divide, we’re offering our assets to businesses that are new, technology that is new, and we’re going to continue to do that.

    Broadband Infrastructure in the Next Decade

    Craig Corbin:

    We’ve talked about the short term and the anticipated, just phenomenal expenditures on infrastructure. If you’ve got that crystal ball, 10 years down the road, where do you see our industry?

    Jessica Collins:

    I would love a crystal ball to be able to answer that more thoroughly. But if I’m projecting a 5 to 10 year viewpoint in the wireless space, I see the need for more infrastructure versus less. In the urban areas, we have to get creative with small cells, stealth-type appearances, hiding things, and venues like stadiums to provide services.  We’re going to have to continue to get creative with our infrastructure in dense urban areas.

    Jessica Collins:

    In the rural space, I see more towers. I see that we are going to have consumers that need this data in the rural space. Where it may be cost prohibitive for someone to have a small cell network or a fiber network in a rural area, then macro towers are going to be needed. So from a worldwide view, consumers are demanding more, and that is going to mean more infrastructure. Crown is positioned well in offering of both the small cell fiber and macro tower components. That is one of the reasons we’ve invested in diversifying our infrastructure available in the United States. And in the next five years, I see that growing.

    Jessica Collins:

    Thank you so much for having me. We’re seeing more infrastructure down the road, and I’ll be happy to discuss it further with any changes or trends that come up in the space.

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