Mike Kerr of Terranet Communications: “Be An Active Listener”

Be An Active Listener. Some of the best work can be done at the front end of an engagement by listening and educating. Private networks are so new, a lot of our prospective customers don’t understand everything that is possible. Even sophisticated IT teams are surprised by the range of solutions that are available to […]

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Be An Active Listener. Some of the best work can be done at the front end of an engagement by listening and educating. Private networks are so new, a lot of our prospective customers don’t understand everything that is possible. Even sophisticated IT teams are surprised by the range of solutions that are available to them, at an affordable cost. Our “selling” process isn’t really selling — it’s an iterative process of listening, educating, designing and costing that continues until we arrive at the optimal solution for each client.

5G infrastructure is being installed around the world. At the same time, most people have not yet seen what 5G can offer. What exactly is 5G? How will it improve our lives? What are the concerns that need to be addressed before it is widely adopted?

In our series, called, How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives, we are talking to tech and telecom leaders who can share how 5G can impact and enhance our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Kerr.

Serial entrepreneur and former Wall Street investment banker, Mike Kerr is co-founder and President of Terranet Communications, a leading provider of customized, fully integrated indoor and outdoor private LTE and 5G-ready fiber broadband networks.

Prior to founding Terranet Communications, Mike spent nearly three decades working as an entrepreneur, managing multi-billion dollar diversified private enterprises, founding and leading residential and commercial real estate companies, non-profit educational institutions and startups. Earlier in his career, Mike held several positions with prominent Wall Street investment banks, including Shearson Lehman American Express.

Mike holds a Doctorate of Law and Masters of Business Administration from the University of California, Berkeley and a Bachelor of Arts from Pomona College. Based in Southern California, Mike is passionate about philanthropy. He is active in a variety of community and civic organizations and also holds multiple board positions and chairmanships. In his free time, Mike enjoys international travel and the pursuit of fine wine.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

In 2018, my co-founder Bart van Aardenne (CEO of Terranet Communications) was involved in the early design and deployment of a citywide small-cell network in Palo Alto, California. As Bart and I discussed the implications of this milestone network and of other emerging communications technologies, including CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) and 5G, we concluded that a sea change in network communications was quickly approaching. We felt our experience, “big picture” vision and relationship network could bring innovation to its transformation. We started Terranet Communications because we collectively saw a better way that private networks could serve municipalities and communities, school districts, commercial real estate, governmental agencies and tribal lands. Our deep experience building wireless networks around the world and running large real estate and non-profit organizations gave us extensive perspective into the specific real-world operational and connectivity needs of these business segments, and how to best address them with 5G-ready private network build outs.

Bart and I recognized we were at the forefront of an entirely new generation of private wireless networks and could bring our expertise to customize the approach for specific immediate and future needs to those organizations who could benefit the most. We believe our combined deep wireless network infrastructure experience and business segment expertise has the power to result in a specialized and smarter approach to what will make a meaningful difference in robust, reliable and cost effective broadband connectivity for a variety of industry sectors, including government municipalities, real estate, education, tribal lands, military bases and more. As a result, we bring private, LTE, 5G-ready networks to organizations and communities easier, faster and more cost effectively than what is currently offered.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

About 20 years ago I created an early stage venture capital company. During this time, I was a judge for two business plan competitions that were part of the MBA programs at California universities. I reviewed and judged thousands of proposals for new businesses.

Several years later, I reviewed the outcomes of the businesses we had approved, as well as a few we rejected. This exercise reinforced widely held “truths” in the technology industry: be nimble, embrace disruptive innovation, be fiercely customer-focused, and deliver added value and excellence. These values are woven into the fabric of Terranet Communications. One example, in particular, involved a new form of content programming. The panel of judges, including me, rejected the concept of a cable channel dedicated to dancing. The idea seemed too farfetched to be viable, so we didn’t provide funding. None of us foresaw the explosion in niche programming or the widespread popularity of watching people dancing on TV.

The lessons gleaned from that post-evaluation are applicable to Terranet’s approach. Be creative and imaginative in thinking about the use cases that can be enabled by a new technology. Look beyond the obvious. Take a deep dive with your customers to help them determine what they can accomplish with a new technologic opportunity. Today, in our case, it is the Terranet Communications wireless broadband network.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” On a personal level, this adage has driven a lifelong passion within me to help others — something I’ve done primarily through organizational leadership in a variety of non-profit organizations.

I believe efforts for positive change also have an important place in the world of business. Bart and I strive every day to “do well by doing good.” At Terranet Communications, we are privileged to work with school districts and communities around the country to help disadvantaged students gain access to reliable broadband connectivity. Equally important, our networks empower municipalities to implement smart city technologies, improving the lives of their citizens by helping to democratize access to broadband connectivity.

Our approach to network technology allows us to realize these achievements. We listen carefully in order to arrive at an optimal, customized solution. Our proprietary design tools promote efficiency; the freedom to select “best of breed” network components ensures an optimal blend of performance and value, and our deep experience in deployment and operations ensures the network exceeds expectations.

Private wireless networks create wide ranging opportunities for growth, success and helping those less fortunate among us. I’m proud to be a part of that.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This is so true and certainly applies to me. One of my favorite mentors was my business partner in my first start-up. Joe Cuzzupoli was a rocket scientist — literally! Among his career highlights, he was in charge of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission, in which astronaut Frank Borman orbited the moon. Astronauts used to hang out at Joe’s house, shooting pool and drinking beer. I got the chance to meet several, including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Joe was funny, polished, charismatic and obviously intelligent. Although I thought I was a pretty good businessman, Joe told me I needed to go to “charm school,” and he was going to be my teacher. I learned a great deal from Joe, usually by keeping quiet and watching him in action. He taught me to really listen, to try to understand motivations, and to figure out a way for everyone to win and receive what they need. He said to “leave a little meat on the bone,” so your partners will want to do another deal. He taught me the value of humor, patience and good will. He taught me to work hard, but also to work smart. To Joe, working smart meant being highly organized, breaking complexity into small pieces that you can monitor and control, and holding yourself and your team accountable for schedules and budgets. I continue to apply his guidance to this day, and many of his lessons and values are integrated into the way we do business at Terranet Communications.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. Listen. Listen carefully. Being successful requires intense customer focus. Learn about their business. Ask questions to help your prospects and customers (and you) figure out what they really need. What is the problem that needs to be solved? What are they trying to accomplish? Private wireless networks come in many flavors. The solution for a dispersed tribal population will not be the same as for an inner city neighborhood. And both will differ from a manufacturing business or a senior care community.

For example, we are doing a project with a local city to provide connectivity for patrons of their central park. The solution we have designed for them uses Wi-Fi hotspots located throughout the park that are connected by CBRS to a central hub. The solution is elegant, affordable and doesn’t much resemble the initial system they thought they needed — all of which we realized after delving deep into the specific scenarios of usage anticipated by the park visitors.

2. Be determined and stay the course. One of my prior companies “blew up” (in a good way), and I often said that I became an overnight success after only 20 years of trying. Other than the occasional tech genius who sells his young startup company for a boatload of money, most of us achieve success through hard work and dogged determination. It’s a cliche, but that doesn’t change its accuracy.

For example, we have been negotiating with a major national real estate company to build a very large, private 5G network for them. After 15 months of discussion, we were close to agreement on a pilot program. The global pandemic struck and the discussion ground to a halt. We kept in touch and just this week agreed to initiate the pilot program that has been in discussion for more than two years. The network for the national real estate company will be very flexible, and able to adapt to the rapidly evolving patterns of work in the United States.

3. Be honest — even brutally honest if need be. Keep one set of books. Tell one story. Your integrity is everything. Many times business associates have repaid honesty through better terms, candor and loyalty.

And the corollary: don’t do business with someone whom you don’t trust. Life is too short to have to get up every morning looking for the next trap. If the voice inside your head is saying to run away, listen to it. Follow your instincts.

For example, for a prior company of mine, Lehman Bros was a frequent source of capital. On a rainy Thursday night many years ago, I received a phone call telling me about a gorgeous piece of property that was going to a foreclosure sale the following Monday. The likely sale price would be about 9M dollars, the property was worth several times that amount. I called my contact at Lehman at home, explained the situation and asked if they would fund the acquisition. The next morning, 9M dollars was waiting in my bank account. No paperwork, no deal memo, nothing but trust. From a Wall Street investment bank. I didn’t end up buying the property because of title issues, but that doesn’t diminish the opportunity that Lehman afforded me because of our prior history of straight dealing. Close, trusted relationships allow faster execution, better pricing and in-depth technical support and collaboration.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects? How do you think that will help people?

We are currently working with a number of exciting customers. One of our projects that is receiving a lot of attention is building a private LTE, 5G-ready wireless network for the City of Las Vegas and the Clark County School District. The first phase of the network is complete and operational, covering approximately 25 square miles.

The City of Las Vegas and Clark County School District are just beginning to think of ways to use the network. Connectivity is paramount for the school district, especially for their most underserved populations. The network will allow the district to move from a patchwork of temporary “band-aids” to a permanent solution that the district owns and controls.

Las Vegas is starting to explore a range of smart city technologies to support other city services, such as public safety, health care and hospitality, all of which will be enabled by their 5G-ready network. And a wide range of companies are contacting the City of Las Vegas to explore ways to test new technologies on the city’s private broadband network.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Like 4G, 5G has many different facets, and I’m sure many will approach this question differently. But for the benefit of our readers can you explain to us what 5G is? How is 5G different from its predecessor 4G?

5G or “Fifth Generation” offers faster speeds, higher bandwidth and lower latency than 4G. 5G speeds can approach 10GB per second, which is up to 100 times faster than 4G. The increase comes from a variety of sources including improved chips, software and antennas, use of a larger variety of spectrum, and installation of vast numbers of small cell antennas.

For much of the business community, the value of 5G is linked to the story of CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service), which is 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. In April, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set aside the 3.5 GHz band for the shared use of the general public. The FCC mandated that access to CBRS must be managed by a SAS (Statistical Analysis System), a frequency coordination system that allows huge numbers of users to effectively use CBRS at the same time.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this decision. It was a major breakthrough for broadband access and the application of private networks. Prior to the availability of CBRS, a company (or city school district, community or any other user) that wanted a private communications network was compelled to pay somebody for access to their proprietary wireless spectrum. Over the years, telecom companies have spent hundreds of billions of dollars purchasing this proprietary spectrum. Not surprisingly, they need a return on this investment. For many users, the cost of building a private network and connecting large numbers of users was impossible to manage.

With the arrival of CBRS, organizations like city governments, tribal lands, school districts, real estate companies and more can now gain access to a great piece of spectrum at no cost. They pay for the hardware and software that comprise the network, as well as for services such as their core network, SAS and the connection to the internet. But those costs are a far cry from the cost of a network that runs on proprietary spectrum purchased at a cost of multiple billions of dollars.

As might be expected, the availability of CBRS has caused an explosion of demand — which is where my company comes in. Terranet Communications has the ability to better meet this demand by making it easier, faster and more cost-effective to leverage the new availability of spectrum. Affordable private networks are a game changer for so many segments of society. CBRS 5G-ready private networks can bring revolutionary changes to so many users, ushering in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and transforming manufacturing, distribution, health care, senior living facilities, school districts, cities and national defense. It’s difficult to find a segment of society that would not benefit from the introduction of a private network.

Where does 5G fit into this story? The real truth is that today, in mid-2021, very few users need, or can take advantage of the speed and capacity of 5G. The vast majority of smartphone users and private networks function just fine with 4G. Most of the networks that Terranet is deploying utilize 4G, but are 5G-ready. 4G is slightly less expensive than 5G, so we’re lowering initial capital requirements, while building future-ready networks.

Can you share three or four ways that 5G might improve our lives? If you can please share an example, for each.

The truth is 5G is still a bit ahead of its time. Companies of all sizes are busy designing applications that will exploit the power and promise of 5G. It is a familiar story and private broadband networks are a part of it. Each generational increase in wireless communication technology enables a range of new and improved capabilities, bringing profound changes to society, organizations and people. 5G technology will be an excellent illustration of this evolution.

Here are just a few of the many 5G use cases:

  • Transportation: 5G roads connected to sensors and smart highways will pave the way. 5G roads will have large numbers of sensors and smart devices which, when combined, will enable real-time interaction between the infrastructure and the vehicles that use it. 5G will also be critical for autonomous vehicles and drones to perform safely, as vast amounts of machine-learning models for interpreting traffic patterns, connecting vehicles to data points throughout their routes, and also vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication connects cars to each other for sharing data about route, road conditions and speed.
  • Utilities: Smart metering will enable smart grids to connect to water, gas, oil and electric utilities. Power companies, consumers and first responders will gain real-time wireless control with a 5G-enabled AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) network.
  • Healthcare and Telemedicine: with 5G, healthcare systems can enable mobile networks to handle telemedicine appointments to significantly increase reach and access to care. Patients will be able to get treated sooner and have access to medical specialists otherwise unavailable to them. Connected wearable devices and software delivered through your smartphone will meet people at the “point of patient” where they live, work and play.
  • Education: Wireless delivery of augmented reality experiences will become a reality and will democratize access to education no matter where you live. Additionally, think of continuous learning such as the Masterclass you take where instead of watching a video of Gordon Ramsey, you have a 3D hologram of him with you in your kitchen teaching you how to make chateaubriand.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this 5G technology that people should think more deeply about?

5G technology is about faster communication of large amounts of data from many users. It enables the collecting and processing of ever increasing amounts of information. This has profoundly positive implications for the Internet of Things. Some pundits assert that we’re on the cusp of the next Industrial revolution.

As with any revolutionary technology, we need to be mindful of issues such as personal privacy and cybersecurity. 5G can enhance or degrade cybersecurity and privacy, so it will be critical to ensure its immense capabilities are used in socially responsible instead of nefarious ways.

Some have raised the question that 5G might widen the digital divide and leave poor people or marginalized people behind. From your perspective, what can be done to address and correct this concern?

5G is still a bit ahead of its time and the vast majority of users today do not need 5G yet, so it will be a number of years before 5G becomes an economic wedge. Underserved and marginalized communities need high-speed broadband access, which can easily be accomplished by 4G networks that are built to be 5G-ready.

The digital divide is a product of lack of this access to a broadband network. The digital divide looks different for different populations. In the inner city, it’s caused by lack of “last mile” infrastructure and/or an inability to pay for commercial service. However, this deficit is increasingly being remedied by the installation of private CBRS networks. Many school districts throughout the country are exploring this option.

In remote locations, the digital divide is caused by a dispersed population that doesn’t provide the economic return to warrant private installation of communications infrastructure. Private networks may be part of the solution, but every situation is different.

Finally, if you combine remoteness, dispersed populations and lack of economic resources, you have the most difficult situation of all. This is the issue, for example, for many tribal communities in the U.S. The good news is that the U.S. federal government has appropriated funds specifically for these communities, and Terranet will be helping with optimal solutions.

Excellent. We are nearly done. Let’s zoom out a bit and ask a more general question. Based on your experience and success, what are the 5 things you need to create a highly successful career in the telecommunication industry? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Work Hard, Work Smart and Be Responsible: the same general traits as in any industry: Be the person everyone wants to have on their project team. This is our mantra at Terranet Communications.
  2. Develop a Strong Business Network: Build a network of friends and contacts in the industry. Technology keeps evolving and good, smart, successful people evolve with it. Find these people, stay in touch and rely on their expertise to round out your project teams. For example, we are preparing a response to an RFP for a large, very complicated project. Terranet Communications will rely on its internal expertise in project design and management, but we’ll rely on assistance in specialized areas from a wide variety of trusted partners.
  3. Continuous Learning: This applies in two ways: One, although we have 30+ years of telecommunications industry knowledge, my co-founder and I consider ourselves generalists. We see the big picture and are adept at the various elements of our business, but we also rely on trusted partners to keep us current with the market and to help with tasks in their area of expertise. Two, if you’re a field engineer, keep learning and adding capabilities. The best combination for you is deep field experience combined with understanding of currently deployed technologies. And if you’re really good, we’ll find a place for you on our team!
  4. Strong Project Management: If you are a project manager or higher up, learn how to manage a complex project. Create schedules and budgets; use project management tools such as critical path analysis; stay on top of the progress of your field crews; solve small problems immediately so they don’t become big problems; manage up and down; and one of my favorite maxims, get bad news out quickly and work with your team to find a solution.
  5. Be An Active Listener. Some of the best work can be done at the front end of an engagement by listening and educating. Private networks are so new, a lot of our prospective customers don’t understand everything that is possible. Even sophisticated IT teams are surprised by the range of solutions that are available to them, at an affordable cost. Our “selling” process isn’t really selling — it’s an iterative process of listening, educating, designing and costing that continues until we arrive at the optimal solution for each client.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My answer may seem out of context in an interview on telecommunications topics, but nevertheless I have been involved philanthropically with arts education for children for more than 30 years. I know with 100% certainty that teaching the arts to kids produces better, smarter kids. Increased problem solving skills, better math comprehension, more creativity and improved concentration. My movement would be to inject arts education into schooling at all levels, and particularly for pre-K children. Let’s give our children the best head start we can.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow Terranet Communications on LinkedIn or Twitter or learn more at https://www.terranet.global.com.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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