Bluebird Network

In 2012, Michael Morey joined Bluebird Network, a merger between Bluebird Media, Missouri Network Alliance (MNA) and Illinois Network Alliance (INA), and went to work on a project that will soon bring higher bandwidth to rural areas in Missouri. With over three decades of experience in telecommunications, Mr. Morey brings a wealth of experience to his new company. “I chose Bluebird because it was the right company in the right industry at the right time,” Morey explains about his decision to join Bluebird Network.

“There are many companies that provide fiber-optics services in Chicago, Kansas City or St. Louis,” says Morey, who serves as president and CEO of Bluebird today. “But there aren’t many that provide those services and also serve rural areas. Bluebird is doing both, which is what makes it different from other telecommunications companies.”

The Grant

The grant project that Bluebird Network has in progress is powered by a partnership between the federal government, the state of Missouri and private investors. This includes a  $45.1 million grant from the U.S Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration as part of the economic stimulus package from the government and a $10.5 million in-kind contribution from the state of Missouri. Known as the Middle Mile Grant, the grant would enable the telecommunications company to connect rural areas of Missouri to the main hubs in metropolitan areas, increasing bandwidth and giving customers better and faster Internet connection, for a fraction of the cost, or as Morey describes it, “more bandwidth sooner at a lower cost.”

Connecting Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) like local governments, schools, fire stations and hospitals was another important component of the project. “We are connecting communities to the main hubs,” Morey says. “But we are also connecting institutions that are important to those communities directly into the grant network to give them very high Internet speed.” With higher connectivity, he says, these institutions will be able to serve their communities more efficiently.

The Problem

Not all Internet connections are created equal. In metropolitan areas in the Midwest there is a lot of competition, resulting in high connectivity and plenty of fiber optics – high supply resulting in lower cost.

Many rural communities still use dial-up connections with the local telephone company as the only provider of bandwidth. These companies might be using copper wiring instead of fiber optics, which compromises speed and raises cost.

“It might be a long time, if ever, before these communities see much larger bandwidths at lower costs,” explains Morey, highlighting the importance of the project. “It comes back to higher bandwidth at lower cost, sooner than you’d expect.”

The Solution

Bluebird Network has 6,000 miles of fiber optics laid out across Missouri and Illinois. Those miles were build out over 11 years, so the challenge is to lay over 1,000 miles in 18 months, with October as the targeted completion date.

For the end-users, the thousands of miles of fiber optics will translate to options. “If you are a hospital in a rural area and you want to connect to the major medical centers in St. Louis, Kansas City or Chicago, you used to have very limited options,” Morey explains. “Our bandwidth has built-in high-speed Internet,” he adds, meaning hospitals will be able to access patient and medical information much quicker and at a fraction of the cost. The government is counting on the boost in speed and low price points to make it a driving engine in the economic environment.

Challenges and Solutions

A project of this magnitude presented some challenges. In order to stay on budget, Bluebird Network sectioned the entire project into seven major parts and each of those parts was again fractioned into subparts. Morey says the company planned to be under budget in many of the subparts to prepare for potential unexpected problems.

Morey also gave credit to Steve Crane, vice president of operations and engineering, for running a tight ship. “Steve is outstanding,” Morey says. “He is a very demanding task master, he stays very close with all his projects. I think it starts with good people and then it is combined with really strong planning and oversight.” The company stays very close to its contractors and they stay on top of their jobs.

Time also presented a problem. “We are on a very short time frame to get this done,” Morey says. “You have to make some assumptions in your planning. When you make those assumptions, you put a little bit of extra money in there, just in case you make some mistakes.”

They must have assumed right because, with six months to go, the project was 40 percent completed as of April 2012 and growing an average of 10 percent per month. This places the project on pace to meet the October 2012 target without a problem.

“A good working team is flexible and able to roll with the punches and move quickly to resolve the issues,” Morey says.

Bluebird Network will make it possible for rural areas of Missouri to have better, faster and cheaper Internet access by fall 2012. Morey plans on growing the network slowly in a managed way over a period of time, one mile of fiber optics at a time.

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