This conversation originally took place on March 12, 2020. You can listen to it in its entirety here:
Lori Walsh: Welcome to In The Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. So, you've been asked to work from home, study from home, communicate with loved ones from home. Does South Dakota have the online infrastructure to help the economy going during a pandemic? How do you get up and running when online work or school is thrust upon you quickly and how do you do that efficiently? Jake VanDeWater is vice president of engineering operations and IT at SDN Communications. He's on the phone with us to walk us through some of the details. Jake VanDeWater, Welcome. Thanks for being here today.
Jake VanDeWater: Thanks for having me, Lori.
Lori Walsh: This is something that you think about all the time, I'm sure, and other people just think about it all of a sudden when they need more services than they're worried about being available. Where do we begin talking about this? Where do you want to start? With what exists in South Dakota already, maybe?
Jake VanDeWater: Yes, certainly it's a key issue that SDN worries about day in, day out. We're owned by the 17 independent phone companies of the state of South Dakota. And it's really internet network capacity, network performance is really one of our forefront focuses and we're looking at capacity as an ongoing basis. So, we're not necessarily planning for the usage of tomorrow or next month. We're really looking out into to next year. So, we're doing the work now with our budget cycle and our network changes to really allow for peak usage that we expect to be coming in the future. And so that's really where we need to kind of start with a lot of the service providers is just focus on having that capacity in our networks, not just for the peak, but for the peaks that are expected six and 12 months down the road.
Lori Walsh: Would you say that this is going to be an expected peak though? Because it seems like nobody could really predict or even now is 100% sure of what's about to happen. How many people will be working from home in ways that they weren't before?
Jake VanDeWater: We're comparing it a lot to similar events that we're used to in South Dakota. We always get that poor weather usage, those blizzard events to where it changes where we see the peak, maybe the usage doesn't change as much, but really the peak comes in a different time of day. Those usage patterns change. So, it's really, I would compare it similar to that blizzard type event where schools are closed, people are working from home, it's just creating that use of change. And so we'll see a similarity with that. But by all means it could certainly end up being a new peak for us this year. A lot earlier in the year then than we may expect.
Lori Walsh: And here's a basic question, but is it just, does it shift because it seems like if 10 people are in an office and they're all using the internet in an office and they all go home and use the internet, how is that different? Just explain to me how that might work.
Jake VanDeWater: So, it all depends on the functions and the usage patterns of that office. That office may be using a lot of cloud services. Microsoft has their online suite of tools, their Office 365. So, if they're accessing those from the office and they're really just moving to home to access those, it really just is a similar usage. Now, it could be different from the standpoint of, it all depends on how that home broadband network is set up. There may be bottlenecks that that user encompasses along the way to where it could be their own wireless network within their home. As the kids are watching Netflix, they're trying to maybe do a webinar or do some functions for work.
It could certainly create a lot more usage within their home that maybe their home wasn't set up for, or even going beyond the home into that home broadband service provider to where that's a shared network. And what that means is there's not a dedicated line going to their home necessarily. So, if they're on that shared network and everybody within their home neighborhood is also working from home and changing the usage patterns there. There could certainly bottle be bottlenecks there that create difficulties as well.
Lori Walsh: Are we seeing usage changes already? Has it started or is it too soon in South Dakota?
Jake VanDeWater: Too soon. We really haven't seen any major changes, as we see events that happen, whether that be an online streaming event or a weather event, we'll start to notice those but we aren't seeing anything out of the norm just yet.
Lori Walsh: It seems like a whole lot of people might be streaming those basketball games pretty soon, which you can see on South Dakota Public Broadcasting and don't have to stream, but you might want to, there's going to be events like that can happen all at once. How can individuals prepare? I know at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, we went home and we tested our equipment from home. We were asked to pay attention and check into what our home services were like and ask some of those questions, sooner rather than later. What would you recommend for people who might be shifting to some kind of home study or home work?
Jake VanDeWater: I think that's a great starting point, is getting an idea of what your home capacity is, whether that's through a speed test or calling your service provider to confirm what plan you're on and then working with your employer, between your employer and then if you're expecting maybe your kids to be home of just getting an idea of, what applications do you need to use? Do you need to access the Microsoft website for their tools? Are you going to be using webinar, online type meetings? Are you going to be doing video chats? And then getting an idea of what the basic usage of those applications are and that'll help drive what bandwidth you need at your home and then making sure it's set based on that.
Lori Walsh: How would you even know that? I mean, a lot of students are being asked to use Zoom, for example. How would you know what bandwidth that's going to take from your home internet?
Jake VanDeWater: Usually the tech coordinators with some of the schools, the South Dakota schools could certainly give some guidance based on normal usage, this would be it. As well as the technical person that employers can give kind of a basic understanding. The FCC kind of has a basic definition for broadband at 25 meg, Netflix, for example, will work. It may work subpar, but it'll work at about three meg. But you certainly need something more than that. Getting beyond that 25 meg would be ideal.
Lori Walsh: All right, so test it out. Ask questions of your IT professional or your service provider. Other things that you can do to prepare?
Jake VanDeWater: I think just making sure your system is ready, making sure you kind of have a plan in place. When we look at it from a business perspective it's very similar to our continuity, whether there's a disaster or an event like this that's coming, that's going to change our normal course of operations and having that plan in place.
Lori Walsh: And I suppose that SDN Communication has to have a plan too because a pandemic and viruses affect computer guys as well. Right?
Jake VanDeWater: Certainly. We have kind of multiple plans, but first is our plan to keep our business going, but then we really play that role of supporting our customers, the various businesses of South Dakota to make sure their services are continuing as well.
Lori Walsh: All right, let's talk about some of the access because clearly there are people who don't have internet service. Either they don't have it in their home because they cannot or choose not to pay for it, can't afford it. But then there are places in South Dakota that just don't have the access. And we've talked a lot about 5G and broadband. Explain to me how wide is the reach in South Dakota for broadband service? How many people are really in the dark still in the state? Do you have an idea?
Jake VanDeWater: I don't have an exact number, but there's certainly a variety of underserved and unserved areas. If a user is looking at working from home or needing access, there is access via what's approaching 5G but really the 4G, the 3G services are still in some of those pocketed areas. As those are available users might be able to get a hotspot device from one of the cellular providers to be able to connect and allow them to have that access. With SDN and with our ownership, we're really looking at continuous opportunity of really expanding coverage and providing kind of the underlying needs for connectivity for folks that are in those underserved and unserved areas.
Lori Walsh: Let's talk about the future because it seems like every crisis is also an opportunity to learn and many places are asking for people to conduct more of their business online or by mail. So, many Howard County residents, for example, are being encouraged towards social distancing, including using a property tax online payment and license plate tag renewal. Is this an opportunity as well as a challenge, to look at how do we do some of this economic work and this business online? Is that potential for a growth and a change in just how we do business in the future?
Jake VanDeWater: Yeah. I think by all means it's certainly a growth opportunity. There's the functions that exist as far as the process with getting those systems in place. But really, we always have to kind of have that process built to the least available. So, I think, working towards a majority of people, being able to have that functionality online but then really making sure we're accommodating to those people that don't have the access, that don't have the devices to really accomplish this type of thing. So, it's really kind of progressing towards the future but making sure we're accommodating all sorts of needs.
Lori Walsh: Have you seen problems in other states, other communities, places like Washington or are you following the news throughout the country to see what kind of connectivity issues have happened? Have there been problems?
Jake VanDeWater: We've been watching it and when it comes to a service provider, the service providers are confident at this point that we have capacity in place. We're direct connected to really the interstate highway, if you will, and we're able to get additional connections and lanes added to allow that free flow of information. Where really we see the concerns is, first would be on that home broadband network to where that's going to start seeing the strain and the possible bottleneck. And then start looking at from there will be some of these more specific tools that, if there's an event where everybody's trying to do an online meeting with the same application, it could certainly put a strain on that application, if it's an abnormally high usage.
Lori Walsh: How long does it take if somebody wants to and can afford to expand their internet coverage at home, is there a waiting list for that sort of thing? Do you expect any kind of a rush on new services or expanded services, and how will you handle them?
Jake VanDeWater: So, SDNs focus is primarily on the business side and we can work with those folks on getting that turned around in a couple of days or less, at the most. From a residential standpoint, it's really a pretty simple change for folks, given there's no equipment that needs to be changed out. So, as long as the existing equipment located at their home and their path back to the internet, if you will, it's usually a simple programming change on the provider's side.
Lori Walsh: All right. And then when we talk about good hygiene and social distancing, are there things that we can do to avoid a bottleneck and sort of work as a community? Do you avoid Netflix? Do you avoid certain times of day? What would the sort of let's all pull together message be for internet usage, or is there one?
Jake VanDeWater: Yeah, I think it's similar to a peak usage time, if you're looking at your electric provider. So, everybody gets home at the end of the day and maybe the heat kicks on, they turn on the TV, they turn on the oven. So, understanding that usage is going to change, so that if you're trying to get something done, first and foremost within your home, maybe productivity for work, if you're focused on that, maybe having the kids play a board game versus using Netflix. Managing the capacity within your home so that you're getting the things you need to get done. Like understanding that Netflix may bog down your internet connection and if you turn that off you'll be able to use other things. And really working with your provider, working with your employer to identify the things you need to get done and then what capacities you need as far as the provider and communicating with them. Some providers may have the ability to, the function within their network to prioritize traffic so that Netflix could use less bandwidth and still function properly for folks and they could allow a prioritization of key business applications if needed.
Lori Walsh: Tell us a little bit about just the vast array of business businesses that use SDN Communications and what do you know about how those uses are changing?
Jake VanDeWater: So, SDN focus is, we're really businesses only. So, we connect first and foremost service providers. So, those connecting the residential users and then we have a number of financial institutions, healthcare, and then government entities as well. Those really through the years, even prior to this type of event, have really tested out that remote employee. So, whether it be at another branch location that they could connect to SDN or really what they use is called a VPN, a virtual private network, so that they can allow users to work from their home broadband connection on any service provider and connect back through to their corporate office, if you will, and then be on the same network. So, it's really making sure that there's enough capacity on that VPN, allowing those users to connect.
Lori Walsh: So, when you talk about government entities or healthcare, these are people who rely on this service. It has to be right. It can't go down. There's a lot at stake.
Jake VanDeWater: Right. And it's to the point where SDN really prides ourselves in the uptime of our network. And you users are to the point where uptime is not just the connection is on, it's on and it's performing. They don't want it to be slow or have any latency associated with it. Uptime really relates to all of those key components of it functioning.
Lori Walsh: All right. Jake VanDeWater, I want to say thank you so much for your time today. Any final thoughts about how this conversation and we're just giving people basic sort of public service information, but we're also in the midst of this big conversation about bringing 5G to this state. How important do you think that is in a time like this? If we were five years down the road, for example, how would our conversation be different right now?
Jake VanDeWater: The 5G is really going to change how we use the internet and the capacities that we can see as an average user. You look at the ... Most typical people have a phone in their pocket that they're doing online activity. It's different than 10 years ago to where we really looked at online usage from a device perspective entirely differently. So, I think as we progress down this road of 5G, it's really going to open up, really open it up as far as what we can get done on the internet and what we can do from just that handheld device.
Lori Walsh: Jake VanDeWater is vice president of engineering operations and IT at SDN Communications. We appreciate you stopping by via phone today for an update. Thanks for your time.
Jake VanDeWater: Thank you.