Voices From Fixed Wireless: A Middle American Broadband Operator
The Carmel Group's Jimmy Schaeffler speaks with OK-based AtLink Network Services’ CEO and principal, Samual Curtis
Periodically, this "Mixed Signals" column includes interviews featuring some of the telecom industry’s more dynamic and change-making contributors. See, e.g., 1) Stanton Dodge, Esq.; 2) Matt Zinn, Esq.; 3) Doug Gaston, Esq.; and 4) Michael Fricklas, Esq.
While listening to him speak about other issues recently during an industry business call, The Carmel Group’s principal, chairman and CSO Jimmy Schaeffler, inadvertently discovered a refreshing set of views about doing broadband in Middle America. The other side of that dialogue was OK-based AtLink Network Services’ CEO and principal, Samual Curtis, a decades-long innovator and leader within the U.S.’s fixed wireless and hybrid fiber wireless ranks. Here, below, he offers his thoughts and experiences for our “Mixed Signals” audience.
Mixed Signals: Tell us about the basics of your OK-based business, AtLink Services?
Samual Curtis: I like to parse AtLink’s description into the four categories below (See, https://www.atlinkservices.com).
Overall: AtLink is registered as a Limited Liability Company in Oklahoma, founded in 2005. Most importantly for your audience at Multichannel News, AtLink is the largest wireless internet service provider [in] Oklahoma. The Company offers fixed wireless broadband services, fiber broadband services, wholesale broadband services, telephone, plus voice and video VPN (i.e., Virtual Private Network), as well as related system installation services. AtLink is a CALEA-compliant service provider and a Trusted Third-Party Administrator, as mandated by the FCC for all broadband service providers. The Company serves approximately 12,000 residential and business accounts in rural Oklahoma. AtLink has successfully expanded its business through continuous innovation centered around its broad spectrum of broadband network solutions. In addition to receiving Phase II funding from the Connected America Fund (CAF), the company was also awarded several U.S. Department of Agriculture Broadband (USDA) Initiatives Program grants, aimed at providing internet service to unserved and under-served regions in Oklahoma for the next 25 years.
Stemming from its broad in-house capabilities, our AtLink team is committed to providing the best and most cost-effective wireless internet services to our customers. The customers and markets AtLink targets are residential (77% of 2020 revenue) and business (23% 2020 revs) in rural Oklahoma. Overall, the Company maintains a base of approximately 12,000 active subscribing customers, and over 90% of revenue comes from recurring active customers. AtLink’s established customer base is a strong asset, one that contributes the most to its stability, and presents significant opportunities for revenue growth.
Employee Base: AtLink employs 90 full-time and 2 part-time personnel, including me, as its active owner. The company’s team has a diverse professional background, depth of experience, and an unwavering commitment to excellent customer service.
Facilities: To support ongoing uninterrupted operations, AtLink owns approximately 47 towers, network equipment, support vehicles, and cable and wire facilities, as well as other support accessories. AtLink operates through six internal profit centers: fixed wireless broadband services (81% of 2020 revenue), grant and other government funding (10%), wholesale broadband services (5%), installation (2%), and fiber broadband services (1%), as well as telephone services and tower rental (1%). Our facility comprises 17,800 square feet, and is utilized for office purposes (8,000 square feet) and warehouse purposes (9,800 square feet). The facility is leased from a third-party, at fair market rates. Early planning has meant that the company can accommodate significantly higher revenues without major facility improvements or capital equipment expenditures.
Success Drivers: Success in the industry is driven by access to technologically-advanced solutions, technical expertise, optimum capacity utilization, key vendor and customer relationships, tower coverage, strong customer service, and a good reputation. AtLink works hard to excel in each of these areas, and we believe strongly we are well-positioned, for growth and success.
Mixed Signals: Which companies are your key vendors, on both the hardware and software sides?
Samual Curtis: AtLink has strong vender relationships with American Tower, SBA Towers, Lumen, Telrad, Nokia (opens in new tab), Ericsson, and Cambium.
Mixed Signals: What have been some of your greatest career and AtLink achievements?
Samual Curtis: AtLink has completed six USDA RUS Community Connect Grants. In each grant we have created a broadband community center and expanded broadband service to students in rural unserved areas of Oklahoma. I have witnessed the difference this has made in overall community relationships, student retention, and overall academic success. It is very satisfying, and very rewarding.
Mixed Signals: What have represented some of your greatest recent successes?
Samual Curtis: AtLink secured a large debt facility with Live Oak Bank necessary to upgrade our IEEE 802.11 AC network to LTE. AtLink successfully participated in the Connect America Fund Phase II reverse auction.
Mixed Signals: What have been some of your greatest challenges?
Samual Curtis: The Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction greatly influenced the realities surrounding Fiber-to-the Household (FTTH), and certainly as a cost-effective last mile technology. In my opinion, the temptation in the auction overpowered the requisite discipline in bidding, in that multiple Census Block Group (CBG), those CBGs went for a rate of support that we believe is unsustainable. Unfortunately, this RDOF auction result has miscommunicated the realities of feasibility that surrounds FTTH in rural America. It seems as though this auction might be shifting broadband monopoly powers from traditional carriers, to rural power cooperatives, which, incidentally, are intended to be non-profit.
Mixed Signals: What are today’s major threats and weaknesses?
Samual Curtis: Today’s greatest threats are heavily subsidized power cooperatives, monopolizing their last mile by leveraging their existing electric power infrastructure. Today’s greatest weakness is that the WISP industry does not yet have the lobbying power to counteract the heavily subsidized power cooperative’s message, insisting that FTTH is the only viable last mile technology. It clearly is not!
Mixed Signals: What are tomorrow’s most worthy opportunities?
Samual Curtis: Tomorrow’s best opportunities are staying the better broadband providers, we hope always like AtLink, staying the course and filling the upcoming broadband gap. This will be further developed by the potential failures surrounding heavily subsidized and under-thought out and under-planned endeavors. I see a future where the incumbent telephone companies work closely with incumbent WISPs. Together, we jointly combat the heavily-subsidized new competition, noted above.
Mixed Signals: Are you still wedded to the idea of hybrid services, mostly as in fiber and fixed wireless?
Samual Curtis: AtLink see FTTH and the WISP infrastructure as tools in our broadband toolbelt. At the end of the day, we are primarily broadband service providers. Thus, we may use FTTH (or Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP)) or fixed wireless to extend that service. I see a future where the only remaining viable tools are FTTH and fixed wireless for broadband delivery.
Mixed Signals: What are your thoughts about satellites, in general?
Samual Curtis: I believe that LEO satellites are potentially a good last resort broadband solution; however, I do not see LEO satellites as a viable competitor to FTTH or fixed wireless. Physics and gravity and economics are simply working against them…and will win.
Mixed Signals: What are your thoughts about Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, like Starlink?
Samual Curtis: I love the innovation; however, I am concerned about the potential of polluting earth’s orbital planes with thousands of access points that only have a five-year workable life. I like the potential of using LEO satellites for disaster recovery, and redundancy for terrestrial services. If our tax dollars end up subsidizing terrestrial service, as well as satellite service, we are, in essence, competing with ourselves.
Mixed Signals: What about other, not-yet-ready-for-prime-time innovations?
Samual Curtis: I think the high frequency millimeter wave fixed wireless service is an interesting last mile solution, but the cost has to be significantly lower than FTTH to make it ready for prime time. I do not believe we are there today. I would imagine this technology would parallel free space optics.
Mixed Signals: How would you define the Sam Curtis vision of Middle America’s telecom future?
Samual Curtis: I see a future where companies like AtLink are able to sustain their business of boldly going where the larger carriers failed to serve. Middle America’s telecom future still belongs to the local small business. These small businesses have local ties to middle America and will ultimately respond to middle America’s needs with much more passion, relevance, precision, and attention than the large, multi-state carriers, that focus on shareholder needs.
Mixed Signals: Describe a typical day for Sam Curtis, CEO at AtLink Services.
Samual Curtis: I am fifty years old, so I am getting around with less urgency, but with more focus, than in my younger years. We live in an Information Age and we are all learning how to be more judicious in how we consume information. I have learned to not sweat the small stuff so much, as a I get older. So, I am able to rely more and more on my senior management, with the confidence that everything will work out if we focus on our customer needs and I listen to the needs of my people. I spend a lot of time and effort listening to the needs of my staff. I feel that it is my job to meet their needs and do what I can to help them succeed. So much of my day is consumed with staff meetings and Zoom calls.
Mixed Signals: How do you spend the majorities of your time?
Samual Curtis: As stated previously, since I see my role as meeting the needs of my staff, I spend the majority of my time meeting with staff. I try to meet with them on an individual basis as much as I can. YouTube has become my best friend, as I have found a tremendous library of technical curriculum, regulatory guidance, and industry-related news at my fingertips within YouTube. I really appreciate the Artificial Intelligence (AI) element of YouTube, as it learns my patterns and predicts what I need to learn. This is a wonderful tool. Of course, my retreat is my family, so I try to spend as much time as I can with them.
Mixed Signals: What, in terms of day-to-day activities, are your favorites?
Samual Curtis: Easy. Seeing my staff succeed.
Q 16:Q 17:
Mixed Signals: What duties are not so pleasant?
Samual Curtis: Dismissing a staff member is the most unpleasant of my duties.
Mixed Signals: What duties are the most important?
Samual Curtis: After taking care of myself so I have what it takes for others, being a good husband and father first and foremost. Then listening to our customers. If we become mute to our customer needs, we are headed for failure.
Mixed Signals: What are the big controversies or issues ahead for you and AtLink? What trends?
Samual Curtis: Again, for emphasis, I am concerned with the results of the RDOF auction. I am of the opinion the support was underbid and the ripples of RDOF failure will propagate for years. I see trends in smaller providers combining or merging to meet the needs of tomorrow.
Mixed Signals: What has been the best event or occurrence in your professional life that has taught you or impressed a lesson on you?
Samual Curtis: The best event of my professional life was winning the USDA RUS BIP ARRA loan grant in 2010. This event cemented AtLink as a utility. It ultimately taught me how to see a project through to its ultimate completion. As an engineer, I have been involved in multiple similar projects, but I had never had the opportunity to see every aspect of a project of that nature.
Mixed Signals: What has been the worst event or occurrence in your professional life that has taught you of impressed a lesson on you?
Samual Curtis: Post RDOF, AtLink was, in some cases, the incumbent provider and losing a customer to FTTH was, by far, the worst event. It taught me that you can never rest. We have to stay aware of our customer’s satisfaction and always provide for their needs.
Mixed Signals: Who in your background impressed you professionally?
Samual Curtis: I have multiple instances of this. My partner and our board chairman, Kenneth Doughty, has taught me patience and focus. I have learned a tremendous amount of business sense from him. My friend, COO, and attorney, Pat Castleberry, has taught me how to resolve conflict with honor. My industry colleagues, Nathan Stooke, Jacob Larson, Matt Larson, Jeff Kohler, Jason Guzzo, and many more have taught me how to share wisdom and experience.
Mixed Signals: What would be the best advice you could offer an existing fixed wireless and hybrid fiber fixed wireless operator today?
Samual Curtis: Invest in a senior management team that works. Cultivate relationships with other leaders in your industry and share your successes and failures. Be mindful of the pace of your growth and cash flow. I have seen growth bankrupt a company. Do not let your political views or your personal beliefs impact your business decisions.
And, in all seriousness: thoroughly read The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association’s new fixed wireless study from The Carmel Group. It was written with both beginners and the most-advanced in mind. Through the years, it has helped me quite a lot, especially with policy and financial matters.
Mixed Signals: What would be the best advice you could offer a would-be/wannabe fixed wireless and hybrid fiber fixed wireless operator today?
Samual Curtis: Spend time installing the service. You need to understand the most mundane and fundamental aspects of the business. This is more important than acronyms and raising money.
Mixed Signals: Any final comments, suggestions, recommendations or otherwise, Samual?
Samual Curtis: Plain and simple: Onward and upward!
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Jimmy Schaeffler (AKA “Shamus Schaeffler”) is chairman and CSO of The Carmel Group, a west coast-based consultancy founded in 1995. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.