Photos by L.G. Patterson
Fibersmith, a Columbia-based company with a national impact and reputation, has been too busy growing to develop the prominent profile it deserves in the mid-Missouri business community. That hasn’t stopped it from making the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest growing private companies for the past three years. Or the Vet100 Award as one of the 100 fastest-growing veteran-owned businesses.
From its offices in Columbia, Fibersmith has built a strong customer base in a time of explosive industry growth. Part of the reason that Fibersmith isn’t a household name is that it doesn’t have to be. It’s not in the retail business and doesn’t depend on consumers’ name recognition. Its mission is “to expand broadband internet access to rural and historically underserved areas.” To do this, Fibersmith markets a wide range of engineering services, consultation and its proprietary software to the agencies, companies and ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that are bringing super-fast
broadband internet to millions and millions of homes.
Fiber-optic cable is a major — though not new — technological advance that has made the internet much faster while supporting a broader bandwidth. The only problem with fiber-optic networks is that not everyone has one. The Pew Research Center estimates that about 25% of Americans still don’t have broadband at home. Closing this digital divide by expanding broadband services is a once-in-a-generation infrastructure revolution, comparable only to the early 20th century effort to bring electricity to every community, farm and street in the nation.
By every measure, Fibersmith is becoming a major player in its industry and the Columbia community. The company employs 36 people at two locations — 204 Austin and 2103 Burlington. Then, there’s the smaller field offices in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, and Paoli, Indiana. The company’s proprietary software supports several thousand subscribers scattered across the country, and it has completed major projects in 40 states. In industry terms, the company is responsible for the deployment of at least 20,000 miles of fiberoptic cable and has evaluated more than 100,000 utility poles, checking whether they can carry additional cables.
Asked how large the company will grow, Nicholas Peña, the company’s vice president, says, “The sky is the limit. We’re seeing incredible growth of the industry, and our role is to help people do something that is traditionally very hard — planning and building these networks, as well as managing them. Each day, there are more people out there trying to figure out how to make the jump from being traditional internet providers to actually building their own fiber-optic network,” he says.
Josh Johnson, Fibersmith’s chief information officer, shares the same enthusiastic outlook for the future, but his focus is on Vision™ software, which he and his team of developers created and market. “We have a unique spot in the market for our software product. Our software is geospatial and process-based, and there’s not a lot of products that can do all that ours does. Other software might do billing, or basic management of some process, but I like to say we don’t have any competitors because I’m playing a different game than other companies.”
Vision ™ software is like the Swiss Army knife of broadband providers. It does just about everything necessary to plan a broadband network, check the plan with the actual landscape and manage workflow. It can even integrate other software, handle billing and assist in identifying the causes of outages in individual homes.
Johnson and Peña are both in their early 40s, but they each have 20 years’ experience dealing with different aspects of the telecommunications industry. Johnson has a BA in computer sciences from MU. Peña has a degree in computer information systems from Columbia College. They met while working at Socket before teaming up with Donny Smith, president and CEO of Fibersmith. Smith, the military veteran of the group, grew up in the telecommunications industry, working on the ARPANET, the precursor of today’s internet. He went on to a career designing and managing all facets of fiber optic systems.
Johnson describes Fibersmith’s growth as organic, starting out small with a few services, then adding services and products as they saw the need. “It’s been an evolution,” he says. “Nick and Donny started the engineering group, and after several years, seeing the next need, they discussed possibilities with me and I came on board and developed Vision ™ software, which much of the industry now depends on.”
If business has been good since 2013, when the company started, it is about to get exponentially better — which will mean more work for Johnson and Peña, but also more profits. Both now have ownership positions with the company. Although broadband internet has been around for about 20 years, the push to make broadband an essential part of the country’s infrastructure has only just begun. Part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress this year includes $42.45 billion to finance broadband deployment projects. As the federal and state moneys become available, Fibersmith is there to help the ISPs and other organizations identify funding sources and file the paperwork required by the Federal Communications Commission.
The funding application side of Fibersmith’s business is overseen by Peña, who also is responsible for the engineering group. It’s the engineers who determine whether proposed projects are viable and what steps are needed that will change plans that exist on paper into smoothly running projects that can transform a community. Once a project gets the green light, Fibersmith can design fiber networks specific to each locality — a complex engineering challenge that has to take into account geographic features of the landscape and the existing infrastructure, including the number and strength of the existing telephone poles that may be loaded with additional wires. Once the network has been designed, the company can provide project management as the ISP gets down to the physical work of deploying fiber-optic wires and installing the equipment that brings broadband into homes.
Tom Cecere, CEO of ValleyNet a nonprofit ISP, based in Royalton, Vermont, relies on Fibersmith to support his company’s planning, building and monitoring of their broadband internet service that reaches about 7,500 people in Vermont and 500 in a small New Hampshire town. He depends on Vision™ software to save ValleyNet streamline company operations while shielding his customers from the inconvenience of a lapse in service. “Vision allows our technicians to immediately know if there’s a problem in the network. We can solve difficult problems without having to send out a truck. In Vermont, even if you’re on the loneliest country road imaginable, when you look up you see fiber-optic lines running. Fibersmith has had a major impact on ValleyNet and the communities we service,” he says.
Peña is proud of the role that Fibersmith is playing in the telecommunications industry and in the lives of people who have never heard of the company’s name. “People who move into rural areas now have the tools needed to work remotely. You’ve got little towns that were basically ghost towns changing dramatically once they get broadband,” he says.
Johnson adds, “When broadband is available at home, it means that kids don’t have to go to McDonald’s and use their Wi-Fi to do their homework.”
Whether a person lives on the loneliest road in Vermont or in a major city, broadband can make a profound change in their quality of life, while expanding business possibilities for entrepreneurs and existing businesses. Behind this transformation is a little-known company, based in Columbia, but helping to create the infrastructure of the 21st century.