From Telephone Poles to GPON & Packet-Optical Networking: 100 Years of a Rural
With Bob Bender, Network Operations Manager, CTS Telecom
In this day and age, one hears and reads a lot about operator woes: stiff competition, declining voice revenues, increasing traffic volumes, growing network complexity, convergence to a common IP-network, and the need for sophisticated value added services all keep coming up in conversations! With this thought in mind, we at Metanoia, Inc. set out to find some examples of operators that were bucking the trend, and see if we could glean the essence of how they have been able to accomplish that.
So, with operators concerned about costs and profitability, how does a 100-year old phone company in rural America maintain a profitable data services business? It is really possible to thwart competition from behemoths, grow a loyal customer base, and provide great service, all while still remaining profitable? What are the “secrets” and what lessons might other small to medium operators glean from such an example?
This is a question that intrigued us, as we met and interacted with Bob Bender of CTS Telecom, the CLEC arm of a 100-year old traditional telephone company, Climax Telecom in Climax, Michigan. We learnt that the secret lies in using technology cleverly, making technology transitions at the “right” time, and in scaling operations appropriately.
To help elucidate these concepts further, and to share with us the interesting story of how Climax Telephone evolved from doing traditional phone service to, today, offering packet-based Ethernet EVCs (!) – quite a leap if we may say so :-), we invited Bob Bender of CTS Telecom (who has had an instrumental role in enabling this transition, from in-the-trenches work to high-level design) to an episode of our signature series “Conversations with Experts.” Bob discusses with us this (on-going) transformation.
In this Conversations with Experts episode, we talk with Bob Bender about CTS Telecom’s evolution and transition over the years, to draw out some key takeaways of their approach, which we believe would be valuable for other small and medium operators.
Bob starts with telling us a bit about Climax Telephone’s history, and then talks about the range of technologies they’ve had over the years, and their evolution to the present day. The key to the transition was the ability to meet the three main technology challenges – transform their switching for voice from TDM to packets, deploy a high-speed IP core, and a provide Carrier-Ethernet based all-packet access network.
We then seque into discussing CTS Telecom’s differentiators, and talk about what they have meant for their success thus far. Bob then highlights CTS Telecom’s strategy to transform its access network. It’s unique proposition being that, unlike other competitors (large and small), CTS Telecom has invested (and continues to invest) in building/acquiring a last-mile access network, which gives it control of the much-coveted "last mile", while reducing dependence on the incumbents for last-mile access to the end-customer. In addition, CTS Telecom has invested in sbuilding valuable partnerships with its vendors, and expanding its “on-ramp” strategy.
Finally, we conclude with summarizing how all these pieces fit together allowing CTS Telecom to today come full circle – from carrying packets over TDM to carrying TDM over packets!
Bob Bender is Network Operations Manager at CTS Telecom, and has been there since 1998. (Climax Telephone is a 100-year old ILEC in Climax, MI, with CLEC operations as CTS Telecom since 1996.)
At CTS Telecom, Bob plays a truly multi-faceted role, leading network architecture, design, and technology planning. Additionally, Bob and his team in Operations and Engineering are also responsible for contributing to strategy, and for technical sales, customer meetings, vendor relations, service development, and road-mapping to keep CTS Telecom on the cusp of the technology curve!
Bob and his team have been instrumental in helping CTS Telecom make several significant technology transitions. Recent projects have included the selection, design, and implementation of the Metaswitch softswitch, TDM-to- packet migration planning, NGN packet-optical network planning and implementation, and the launch of MEF-based Ethernet services. Current activity also includes ARRA Broadband Stimulus GPON implementation in the ILEC and a NGN access network project to replace the legacy DCL and Wave7 EPON with the Adtran Total Access 5000 MSAP.
Bob has had to evolve his career, to keep him on the edge of new technology evolutions in computers and networking, amassing the expertise that serves him well to this day!
Indeed, with a background in graphic design, Bob dropped out of art school to work as “compositor” for a publisher, operating phototypesetting equipment. As technology advanced, he became a systems manager, overseeing a mini-computer based text-processing system that output on phototypesetting equipment. With the advent of personal computing and “desktop publishing”, Bob moved to the vendor side, as a network engineer for a publishing systems integrator, delving into LAN and WAN networks and dabbling with routers, just as IP networks started to evolve.
The future of traditional publishing looked bleak, and the constant nationwide travel to publishing sites became exhausting, so an opportunity arose to change careers. An associate of Bob’s who was a manager for Climax Telephone said “How’d you like to learn about the phone business?” Since this meant being home every night, although less lucrative :-), Bob made the official switch from publishing to telecom.
His first assignment was a month at Lucent 5ESS translations school, after which he worked in “translations”. At that point, all of Climax’s revenues were from voice services. As the Internet blossomed, Bob attended a class on Cisco routers. Climax had been providing T1s for several small ISPs, but they proved short-lived. Finally, CTS decided to get into providing Internet access for its customers, initially using IDSL, and then T1 and integrated access (voice and Internet). In 2004, he was named “Data Products Manager” and lead the development of the ISP operations. In 2005, Bob spearheaded the deployment of PON. In 2009/10 he helped design and launch CTS Telecom’s Ethernet and packet optical network, and their Ethernet services business.