Brigitte Daniel, Wilco Electronic Systems: executive vice president of black-owned cable operator talks about digital divide, Comcast [Q&A] - Technical.ly Philly

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Nov. 25, 2011 11:00 am

Brigitte Daniel, Wilco Electronic Systems: executive vice president of black-owned cable operator talks about digital divide, Comcast [Q&A]

Though founder Will Daniel remains president and chairman of the company, it's been daughter Brigitte, 34, officially the company's executive vice president, who has taken up much of the company's vision and regulatory affairs.

Will Daniel had two babies in 1977.

One was launching Wilco Electronic Systems, the now Fort Washington-based, black-owned cable operator that focuses on serving low income Philadelphians. The other, of course, was his daughter Brigitte Daniel.

Though Will remains president and chairman of the company, it’s been Brigitte, 34, officially the company’s executive vice president, who has taken up much of the company’s vision and regulatory affairs — heavy lifting in the regulation-crazed cable industry. Recently named to an FCC committee on digital diversity, Daniel is hungrily taking on the digital divide and couching that as a fundamental of the company’s future.

Since 2001, Wilco, which employs about 45 people, has been the primary cable and internet provider for Philadelphia Housing Authority projects, while it continues to offer mainstream offerings at more affordable costs for low income Philadelphians in other ways. Brigitte was one of the driving forces in bringing together the Freedom Rings partnership that won federal broadband stimulus funding to trial ways at increasing broadband access and awareness in poorer communities.

“Wilco helped frame the conversation,” Brigitte said. “The city put together the [new computer] centers, we did the infrastructure. It was important to have the partnership. It isn’t easy to get everyone to play together in the sandbox.”

Brigitte seems the perfect heir for her father’s business, perhaps even more so when she mentions she hadn’t planned on ever joining the company while growing up in Abington. An alumnus of Spellman College and Georgetown’s law school, she found herself gravitating to the impact telecom has on communities while in school. After graduating from Georgetown in 2002, she did policy work for USAID in Ghana, West Africa, where mobile technology conversations were already stirring. She was hooked.

Now living in Fairmount, Brigitte is currently on leave from her role in the day-to-day management of Wilco, as she serves in the prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship program. Traveling to learn about how the digital divide is being handled in south Asia, Daniel landed in New Delhi in late October, traveled elsewhere in India, including Hyderabad, then Sri Lanka, Singapore and will move on to Malaysia before returning in mid December. (See her blog on her travels here.)

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In a phone call from Mumbai earlier this month, Daniel talked to Technically Philly about Wilco’s relationship with Comcast, what’s the future of Freedom Rings and more.

Edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about Wilco.

We’re a really unique company. We’re one of the last African-American owned cable operators in the country. Many were bought and merged through the years, with all the consolidation in cable and telecom and security systems for the last 34 years. My father started the company in 1977, the same year I was born, so my father had two babies that year. We focus on buildings with multiple units, since we’re a PCO [private cable operator], not a MSO [multiple system operator] like Comcast.

Because there aren’t as many restrictions on us as a company like Comcast, we can customize offerings that are very focused, since we’re private, we can provide services at varying prices, so that’s why we’ve focused on affordability and low income communities. We got into [the Philadelphia Housing Authority] in 2001 as the primary service provider, though we have been there since the 1980s. We were there when it wasn’t trendy to talk about access because they were our communities.

Wilco has developed a niche around broadband access issues. Was there an interest before internet service was a part of what Wilco offered?

Technology changes every year, we were always for our poorer communities.

TV for a low income person serves as entertainment and babysitter. It means more than it does for someone else. That gets criticized sometimes but with fewer options, technology — and TV for much of our company’s history fit in that category — is a chance at impact and cost cutting. We’ve always meant to have a social service aspect to what we do. We’ve always focused on offering the most to those who have the least.

We can’t do what we can do if our people can’t benefit from what we offer. We didn’t do it because we got a merger, we do it because we want to do it and always have done it.

We’re in between technology upgrades ourselves, but where in a unique place as an industry and it’s exciting to be here.

We sense there’s some criticism of Comcast, noting that its low-cost broadband package Internet Essentials rolled out as part of its FCC deal to approve the NBC acquisition.

No, we’ve partnered with Comcast for a relatively long time. My father knew [Comcast co-founder] Ralph Roberts from 10 to 15 years ago. They were smaller, the whole industry was smaller, and all the owners knew each other. Ralph and my father have been friends for years. We buy programming for them, and we resell that programming at an affordable cost. They’re federally regulated so they can’t price differentiate. PHA residents are getting mainstream programming but they are getting it more affordably from Wilco.

Comcast [Internet] Essentials is awesome, it’s a great step to getting more people online. At least it sets the bar for what market providers should be doing, even if the FCC is approving it, the mandate or encouragement is making it clear that our country needs to be connected. The speed is going to be issue, the issue will always be bandwidth. The low income groups, they’re going to adopt to the technology and love it, and they’ll connect with people, but they want to connect with things like Skype and Youtube first, to catch up with everyone else, and those services take up bandwidth, so with more people using that capacity, I think it’ll be hard for the Essentials program to keep up. The speed is just an entry level, just a start.

So what’s the next step?

What we’re trying to do and what we proposed in the broadband stimulus grants was to provide high speed access, to layer on applications around health and jobs skill training and software and development. To have impact like that, you’re going to need more than what is being offered by the Comcast Essentials program.

Those days will come and we’ll find ways to get the speeds up. For a national platform, it’s a great way to get underserved people online. What we’ll almost immediately see, well, it won’t be a digital divide gap, it’ll be a bandwidth gap, between those who have it and those who don’t. I applaud Comcast and Cox and Time Warner and the FCC for making it a priority because before it wasn’t.

My biggest recommendation for the FCC is that this is great and kudos for making it a national program, but they have to be sure to not ignore the services that have been providing these services for low income people for years. If not, we’ll see minority-owned companies getting pushed out of the way. We need the encouragement of partnership, and that should come as we ask ‘how do you measure success of a program like Comcast Essentials?’ What is success? I don’t think that has been determined yet.

You’re currently traveling abroad as an Eisenhower fellow. Tell us about it.

Yes, so I’m a 2011 Eisenhower fellow, and the fellowship, which has been around since 1953 and is based in Center City, sends emerging leaders from this country abroad to find ways to collaborate and create dialogue about what you’re doing to find and share best practices.

So for us at Wilco, it’s technology. We’re spreading our wings globally: how often does a small cable operator get the chance to do that? You get to go wherever you want to go, and so we’re in India and southeast Asia because technology and innovation are skyrocketing here, particularly mobile and wireless infrastructure. The innovation is skyrocketing, the population is young and interested. We support low income communities and that’s the exact challenge that’s being dealt with here.

In many of our conversations here, we see a focus on new mobile deployment to reach across rural poor communities through fiber and wireless. That’s what we want to learn about because the problem with Freedom Rings [here in Philadelphia] is the infrastructure didn’t get funded [by broadband stimulus], so a lot of [Philadelphia Housing Authority] housing doesn’t have internet connectivity.

Everyone is going through the same issues, a low income population has needs for access for opportunity to learn and grow like the rest of a population. You look at the scale — India has 1.5 billion people, Philly is 1,5 million — and everyone is seeing that without access, you’re not a participant in government.

It’s a whirlwind fact finding mission so we can learn and provide the best access to low income Philadelphians. We have to implement what we’ve learned, so we’ll look at what systems could be used and partner with the city to make change.

I’m proud to say that I’m one of the first U.S. fellows to be focusing on technology from a service provider role. We are on the front lines of providing service to low income Philadelphians, and so we can use what others are doing abroad. And what helps is that once you’re in the fellowship, you’re always in, no matter where you travel, you have a network. Really, I’ve learned more about American technology companies here than in the United States because you can get a meeting wherever you travel.

We’re bringing the best ideas back to Philadelphia.

You also have one of those fancy federal appointments: being named to the FCC’s re-charted Federal Advisory Committee on Diversity in the Digital Age. What does that mean?

It’s about recommending policy for diversity for training and broadband and lowering barriers, ensuring universal access and adoption. It’s policy action, and recommending steps to the commissioners.

I think started with Michael Powell, when he was chairman, and while some of his policies were conservative, this group is very progressive. The point was that content was diverse and so diversity in providers mattered. When [new Chairman Julius] Genachowski came on, the role has become really focused on broadband, making sure it’s available and affordable for everyone, and providers are partnering with the governments for it. Genachowski’s legacy is trying to bring access to as many Americans as we can, particularly the underserved. That gap is widening and widening.

They’ve had a lot of the same big players, but there is some new perspective. They wanted someone to come to the committee with on-the-ground, in-the-trenches experience who can also speak FCC language. It’s a new cache for the company but also a chance to get in on these big conversations.

OK, explain something: in the cable industry, why can the small players like Wilco have a lower price point than a company at the type of scale of a Comcast?

Yes, so we’re a private cable operator. We have less regulation, less federal regulation, so we can sell something at a variable price that we determine that covers our costs.

We can only provide to specific communities, so it forces us to have a niche. Smaller cable operators have to focus on vary narrow communities that the big players aren’t hitting. We don’t just provide to PHA residents, but also to commercial business. We partner with other entities, not just providers but educational organizations. Our niche, as I said, is that we sell affordable.

Of course, there aren’t a lot of Wilcos because it’s very capital intensive. Customer acquisition takes time and relationships.

Why can’t Comcast just charge less? And if you are cheaper but providing similar service, why can’t anyone become a Wilco customer?

[laughs] Everything is regulated by the FCC and everything has a territory.

In Philadelphia, Comcast is the incumbent service provider. So you have to apply for a franchise from a municipality, to get council approval, to be the incumbent, to be able to offer service [using the city’s broadband infrastructure] As a PCO, we do not have to do that. But because it’s by territory, we can’t provide everywhere. Well, at least today, broadband is not regulated in the same way, but cable is. So in your average single-family home, only cable operators that have a city franchise can offer service. [Satellite providers are a separate option altogether.]

So why does Wilco provide service where it does?

Our big client is PHA. We provide to those homes because in 2001 the agency put out an RFP to get a contract to provide those services. Before 2001, there were various partners private and small offering services, and we were one of them. We can’t go into a residential home because we can’t cross what are called ‘public rights of way.’ MSOs [like Comcast] pay a lot of money for a franchise, but they get to wire an entire city and get all those customers.

Wilco can only provide to private communties, in a building or in an enclosed campus, so PHA fits, or places like condos, multiple dwelling units. So as a small cable operator, you find your niche, what existing communities you can add value for. You pitch those communities and get a contract.

To close out, because Wilco and yourself particularly were involved in bringing together Freedom Rings, what’s the latest there?

As part of the fellowship, I’m learning lessons there too. We have to make sure that Freedom Rings is sustainable, after the funding is gone and the training is gone, we need to find new, affordable ways of doing what we do, improving access and awareness. We can’t exclusively depend on grants. We need to find new ways. Mobile phone development is a big part of being sustainable, as every phone will soon have browser capabilities and we can find cheaper solutions of training and making low income Philadelphians aware of what is out there. That’s the next big hurdle.

It’s still a good partnership, which is good, because it’s going to take a village to make sure this program will continue to be a success into the future.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. In that capacity, he is a co-organizer of Philly Tech Week, Baltimore Innovation Week, Delaware Innovation Week and other events that bring smart people together. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here and curates a personal monthly newsletter of ideas and links here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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