At the onset of global lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Internet usage spiked between 50% and 70%, and streaming increased by 12%, according to Forbes.
Light Reading's Women in Comms recently caught up with Cheri Beranek, president and CEO of Clearfield, to discuss how the pandemic has impacted broadband demand, fiber infrastructure and the industry's efforts to close the digital divide.
Beranek co-founded the fiber optic product manufacturing company in 2007 and has worked in the telecom and technology industries since 1987.
"With my first positions in marketing, I was really good at being able to work with engineers and take the value proposition of the technology that they were developing and turn that into meaning for our prospective customers and clients," says Beranek.
During her tenure as president and CEO of Clearfield, the company has recorded 12 consecutive years of profitability. In addition, Clearfield has over 250 employees and more than 800 customers. Prior to Clearfield, Beranek held executive-level positions at Americable, Transition Networks, Tricord Systems and Digi International, and has worked with several non-profits as well.
Stay tuned for part two of this Mentor Spotlight where Beranek discusses how skills training and continuing education opportunities can address the gender gap in the telecoms space, the importance of mentors, and her advice for women facing new challenges in balancing their personal and professional lives during the pandemic.
Cheri Beranek is President and CEO of Clearfield.
Women in Comms: Has the pandemic or 5G deployments had a significant impact on demand for fiber products?
Cheri Beranek: Without question. The COVID world has validated the need for broadband. I joke with friends that is the one thing that the Democrats and Republicans can agree on.
We've seen huge demand [for broadband] and it's accelerated the deployment of projects already underway. It has also established the business case for those projects that were under consideration. Because the take rates have been so significant, the line between business and consumer has been blurred.
From a 5G perspective, resources have been realigned a bit, with national carriers, toward consumers. Early on, we saw some of the 5G work being stalled and move more toward the consumer base of being able to get broadband underway. Some of my investors are struggling with all the advertising that goes on for 5G and 5G telephones, and I have to remind people that 5G is so little about our phones and so much more about the infrastructure that's being put into place.
I think our 5G world, which is about really connecting that infrastructure, has been a little delayed. But, it's a short term issue because the long term [issue] is that infrastructure is going to be an important part of high-speed broadband and the fiber that enables it.
WiC: With so many people working and trying to learn from home, have you seen any changes to fiber buildouts in areas that have been historically underserved or in rural areas?
CB: We've certainly seen the business case being put into play there so that the take rates are going to be significant. We've seen projects, that were funded under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, being completed by the end of 2020. That's been exciting because that's for underserved areas that needed that extra help. That's going to be a phenomenal business case for the RDOF (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) funds that are underway, and being able to fund some of these initiatives under CARES has given people examples by which to follow.
We as an organization have been a long-standing provider to community broadband. We take credit, a little bit, to call it "community broadband" rather than "small market" because it has been the neglected space for so long and we wanted to be able to provide products that fit that space.
We knew that products that were about scalability and the ability to align capital equipment expenditures alongside subscriber take rates were going to be paramount to small market deployment and I think that's still the case. But in underserved communities, we're going to see the need for products that reduce or eliminate the need for high-skilled labor. We need to see a means by which to speed up deployment.
There are tried and true products in the market that have been around for ten plus years, but they're really not designed for today's broadband. We've been introducing products now in the last few months that we call "StreetSmart" to address challenges in fiber infrastructure along streets such as: How do we make sure that they can go into the market fast? How do we speed deployment? How do we take the work out of it? How do we deal with permitting and right away? And that's absolutely what the underserved markets need as well as the general community.
WiC: I imagine there's a slightly different approach to those areas than in an urban area, is that accurate?
CB: Absolutely. In urban areas, we're going to see a lot more work on MDU (Multiple Dwelling Units) type activity and that has its own challenges. In an underserved market, usually, things are farther apart and you don't necessarily have the density by which to validate your business case. You also don't necessarily have the craftsman work to put it into place.
Last spring, we deployed a product called "The Home Deployment Kit," which is literally a package so that they can bring fiber to the house, and then all the work that needs to happen inside the house is just in this kit with instructions for the homeowner by which to make the connection. That sped up deployment and that's allowed for touchless and contact-free installation and has reduced the cost of deployment in these underserved markets, which is always an issue.
— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Senior Editor, Light Reading