This year marks the 40th anniversary of Ervin Cable entering the market, now a multi-state corporation operating in over 30 states with over 1000 employees. Gary Ervin, Co-founder and Executive Chairman, is a universally respected figure in the telecommunications industry and yet, arguably, some of his personal achievements steal the limelight from his professional career.
As part of the Render Connect executive series, Sam Pratt, Render Networks’ CEO, sat down with the telecommunications construction leader to hear his insights on the trends evolving the broadband sector - particularly in these challenging times - and the role cooperatives are playing in bridging the rural divide.
SP: Welcome Gary, how's life in Union County treating you today?
GE: Thanks, Sam. It’s treating me fine, I'm sitting at my home in Western Kentucky right now recuperating from hip surgery. I was scheduled to go to Nepal and, while I canceled my trip due to surgery, the entire season of Denali was canceled due to COVID-19 so I have a year now to recover and go slightly easier with my training.
SP: Let’s start with some of your, frankly, remarkable personal achievements. You have summited six of the ‘Seven Summits’, competed in upwards of 30 marathons and triathlons and traveled across the globe with the reality TV adventure, The Amazing Race, not once but twice! All while running several successful businesses. Your thirst for life is infectious - can you share any personal highlights from this list?
GE: My daughter who was runner-up in Miss America was asked to do a reality TV show called Survivor and she said "I don't want to starve for another six months on an island" and the same casting director said, "well, get a partner, and you can do The Amazing Race." We had so much fun traveling all over the world, including Australia, which is still one of my favorite places.
One of my greatest achievements is my family. They have been around me and with me through it all. My two brothers are still a big part of the company we started, most of my children still work within the industry. Maintaining a successful family business in itself is hard, but we grew up on a farm in a rural part of Kentucky and worked together from a young age which has transposed well into the work we do now within the telecommunications industry.
SP: One question we're asking all of our Render Connect guests is ‘what does connection mean to you?’
GE: I've always been in the business of connection. We started out with copper networks, then voice calls where people could talk to each other. Technology evolved into coax networks where people could download or receive video programming, then wireless communications and now fiber optics which has seen the biggest explosion for connectivity.
I am very good at construction. I like to build things and that's one stage of a very busy process. When I think about delivery, Render has created a connection between the initial design to field engineering, the procurement of materials, and the final hand-off to operations. That streamlining is something that hasn't been done before, so I see that as connection. Knowing where we play well and collaborating with the right partners gives us both the best chance for success.
SP: Thanks Gary, it's been a real pleasure for us to be able to connect with yourselves and others across the industry. You have a unique view into more projects than most. Could you share any themes that you believe are really driving the industry now?
GE: Our philosophy has three simple points. Follow the technology; find people’s wants and needs and build for the demand. Look for the changes in those technologies and be on the front foot, there are usually really good opportunities to learn and develop and get in front of the pack. The third is slightly more selfish, it’s to follow the money. Find out where people are willing to spend and how much. For example, the situation we’re fortunate enough to be a part of right now with the Government funding the deployment of broadband services to rural communities.
‘Follow the money, follow the technology and look for the changes to where you can play in those playgrounds.'
SP: Living and working in Western Kentucky with some of the inherent constraints around connection, from your community's perspective, what impact do you think improved rural broadband and connectivity can have?
GE: It will be huge. I barely have enough bandwidth to do the essentials - work from home, access telemedicine and download entertainment sources - YouTube has been shut off and I haven’t been able to watch Tiger King even though I see everyone talking about it, it’s killing me! But seriously, I am really excited about the opportunities it will bring. One of my favorite things to do is to go to a cooperative board meeting and talk to the President and board members who are part of the community. They're farmers, business entrepreneurs, gas station owners, and teachers, with locally owned and controlled networks making decisions that impact their members and it’s incredibly refreshing.
SP: Some of the economic benefits of being able to access a broadband connection at home are quite profound. Certainly, in metropolitan areas, businesses are fortunate enough to maintain their revenues through this challenging period by transitioning to a remote working model. Has that been a real constraint for you at Ervin Cable?
GE: It has been a really difficult few weeks. We have been placed under the rule of no more than 50 people in a building and our corporate office alone houses 170. I'm looking at how we can get the other 120 people continuing to perform necessary functions as their homes in Kentucky however most have little to no bandwidth. Fortunately, the people in the field, my guys that are building 5G and Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) have never been busier and I can’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.
I think there is more demand than ever for coverage, we have reached a critical point where we need to expand the infrastructure in rural and metropolitan areas to address constraints around the amount or when bandwidth is consumed. The importance of that going forward is where you'll start to see significant adjustments.
SP: Thinking about what's on the horizon, the here and now with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and some of the state and federal money that is available to improve connection. What recommendations would you share with teams looking to build fiber networks?
GE: We’re working on 10 cooperative and FTTH network rollouts currently and a consistent theme is that all projects start with a pilot build. Once building commences and they receive CAF, ReConnect or the upcoming RDOF funding, they start seeing the penetration and associated revenue and want to accelerate the build-out, often driven by the members in that community.
'So the first recommendation for network owners and their chosen partners is; be prepared to go faster. it's happened in just about every case.'
In relation to cooperatives, their members are their lifeblood, and they vote for the CEO, so these executives are very concerned about delivering excellent service. My advice here is don't undercut your quality. They want good products and they don’t mind if it costs them 20 years to pay it back. These may be smaller build opportunities that are slowly drawing more consistencies, however, you have to be prepared to be flexible and cater to what the end-customer and community wants.
SP: A lot of talk now centers around 5G, Gary. Some are even suggesting a 5G ‘gold rush’ once the crisis passes. How do you see the 5G timeline playing out based on your interactions with the market?
GE: We work a lot with the big carriers and cable companies, we are probably building as much 5G as anyone. Right now, we're at the tip of the iceberg. We’re seeing deployment in the large, densely populated metropolitan areas and there is still so much to build out, it will take years to deploy. Unfortunately for me in a county with four miles per home, it's going to be a while before I see it. The radios and technology are still a little too costly so our greatest chance is a Government subsidized rural utility development fund or FTTH solution.
A number of metropolitan areas, believe it or not, are underserved. They still have copper networks, they still have coax networks and they don't have FTTH. 5G will enable gigabit speeds in a wireless format for these folks which is fantastic.
At the moment, 5G is certainly cost-prohibitive for rural communities, but in the future, no doubt. In the meantime, there is an abundance of fixed wireless being deployed. I get asked all the time ‘what are we as an organization going to do when cellular and 5G arrive?’. I tell them that it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Do you know how much fiber backbone and infrastructure build-out is required to support these technologies?
SP: And it all requires distributed teams and similar construction approaches. You still physically need to build this technology, you need to deploy it, and you need to apply a lot of fiber to backbone data up and down, right?
GE: We’ve talked about the handoffs between parties that are required to build this, it still requires innovation from start to finish. There are no better or faster ways to dig a ditch, climb a pole or install fiber cable. But what we're seeing, with products like Render, is the ability for technology to integrate all of these moving parts and have visibility of one source of data. That's huge, we're all looking at the same source of data. There are no paper maps, we are working off a unified geospatial data source that's accurate and it enables you to achieve so much more than just a visual display of what goes where. This innovation is critical and what I like to see going forward.
SP: That means a lot coming from you, Gary. Now looking towards the future, what are you and the team at Ervin Cable most excited about?
You know, as I said, I love the relationship we have with cooperatives. I love the members being the boss, it’s almost a reverse organizational chart that I'm used to working for.
On the other side of the coin, we have 5G deployments. The carriers have done their research, come up with this technology and are now taking big risks. I see carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast spinning their own capital to build a better network, innovating around their infrastructure and the new technologies they enable - that’s exciting.
I believe there are three things in this business we should never do:
‘Never predict where technology can lead you, how fast it’s going to get you there and the resilience of your customer to figure out better ways of doing things.’
I'm always experimenting with the next best thing however you can never predict what tomorrow brings.
SP: To close out our time together Gary, can you share a little on the summits that you've ascended and which mountain is next on the list?
GE: There are seven major summits in the world, the tallest point in each continent, and so far I've climbed six of them. The toughest one is probably Mount Everest, I made it in 2018 on my second attempt. I’ve learned a lot on the side of a mountain - about myself, about the things that are truly important, and the humility that there's always more to learn.
My last peak to climb is Denali and I've had it scheduled twice now. The first time I had an incident in Nepal and had to be rescued which required me to be in intensive care for eight days with four surgeries in a Nepali hospital. This year we've been hit by the Corona pandemic and, and I've acquired a new metal hip. I hope next year is my year to finish it.
SP: What a great way to wrap up. Gary. Thank you for sharing so openly about the evolution of the industry and a few of the peaks in your personal and professional journey. I wish you all the best for Denali. It's been such a pleasure chatting with you.
GE: Thank you Sam, I appreciate it and I'm always glad to talk about this. Stay safe and take care of your family through these times.