Washington state’s broadband guru on an internet moonshot and being a metaphorical prom king

Russ Elliott in his man-cave COVID-19 workspace. (Photo courtesy of Russ Elliott)

When a buddy of Russ Elliott‘s asked if he’d join him in starting a telecom company, he flat out said no. While his friend had been a great help building a website he needed, the venture didn’t have any financial backing and Elliott wasn’t versed in internet connectivity.

But when his friend took the unusual step of sending him a motivational postcard — something with an iceberg and a corny message about not knowing what’s out there unless you took a risk — it played on his mind. Elliott had an MBA. He had drive. He decided to embrace the inspirational cliché.

With that, some 20 years ago Elliott helped launch what became a successful business in Colorado called Brainstorm Internet, serving as its president for 13 years.

“We were nimble and quick and had smart people on our team and started DSL in our area,” Elliott said. They applied scrappy, creative solutions to deliver connectivity to rural areas in parts of Colorado and New Mexico.

 It certainly is a moonshot, but it is not unattainable.

There were other ventures mixed in, but the job with Brainstorm Internet wound up prepping him for his current role as the first director of the recently created Washington State Broadband Office, an organization within the state’s Department of Commerce. Elliott has the challenge of providing high-speed internet connectivity — 150 megabits per second for both downloading and uploading data — to all residents and businesses in the state by 2028.

“That really does set us on a different path. It is the most aggressive goal in the country today,” Elliott said. “It certainly is a moonshot, but it is not unattainable.”

He estimates that half of Washington’s population currently lacks fast, reliable, affordable connectivity.

Before coming to Washington in the fall of 2019, Elliott served as the broadband manager for the state of Wyoming for a year. He’d barely settled into his new role before the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded and countless essential functions shifted from in-person to online over the course of days and weeks.

Suddenly internet connectivity was no longer a behind-the-scenes utility that many of us preferred to ignored.

The Elliott family’s rural menagerie includes goats, chickens, horses, a dog, a cat and two fish. (Photo courtesy of Russ Elliott)

“Before COVID, I was the wallflower at the prom,” Elliott said. “During COVID, broadband and my office are now prom king.”

Elliott is trying to capitalize on this newfound status. He has to help people connect online ASAP to gain access to school, work, healthcare, shopping and other services, as well as lay the foundation for what he calls “future-proof infrastructure” that will serve long-term broadband needs. He’s touting a community-led approach and launched a survey to create a detailed map to show precisely where connectivity is lacking.

Elliott is eager to test out disruptive, emerging technologies to help span the proverbial last mile for remote connections. His background in the field gives him “street cred” with providers, but he finds political maneuvering a bit trickier. Elliott tries to keep the conversation nonpartisan and hopes federal leaders will provide states with funding and some independence in expanding connectivity — an approach supported by Pew Charitable Trusts, which recently concluded that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution and applauded state-led innovation in spanning the digital divide.

Elliott has another hopeful metaphor for how the connectivity story plays out: Widespread broadband improvements, he said, can be “the lemonade from the big lemon called COVID.”

We caught up with Elliott for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office. (Department of Commerce Photo)

Current location: We live on a few acres in northwest Mason County, west of Seattle across Puget Sound

Computer types: HP EliteBook

Mobile devices: Two iPhone 7s, one for work and one for me

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Rev, MLB.TV, Audible, LinkedIn, CBS Fantasy Sports, Cyclemeter, Amazon, Keeper Security, GoSkyWatch

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? My man cave. It is in the basement and it stays the same temperature all year long. Hot outside? Not down here! Cold out there? Not down here. Comes equipped with a big comfy sectional sofa for when my barstool Zoom meetings are over.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Still trying to figure it out during this “shelter in place” work phase. I find having my office in the home makes work way too convenient and that has taken a toll on my Plants vs. Zombies time with my 5-year-old son.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? LinkedIn is the only social network I really use. For me it’s the only business-focused network that I feel comfortable connecting and collaborating on. I am saddened by the recent uptick in cold-calling going on there, but the good news is you can just ignore it.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 150-ish. I have scanned most of them, but having a bit of a challenge keeping up.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 42

How do you run meetings? Focused. I hate meeting “just because.” I always want to know what success looks like when I host a meeting and look to get that outcome.

Everyday work uniform? Pre-COVID, button-down shirt, slacks, coat and bow tie if I am in front of legislators. During COVID, Robert Graham shirt, sweat pants and flip-flops.

Russ Elliott (right) and his son catching some fish not-so-close to home. (Photo courtesy of Russ Elliott)

How do you make time for family? We live in the woods a bit so we try to go on a couple of walks a day to enjoy the outdoors. Weeknights, Plants vs. Zombies or Minecraft with my son or we take cuts in the batting cage. Friday night is date night with my wife. Saturday and Sunday is work around the property as the home team.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Trips to the beach, mountain biking, fly fishing, hiking or a nap.

What are you listening to? The Walk Longmire Mystery series on Audible — George Guidall is a brilliant narrator. My music list is a bit like a yard sale: I like listening to music I can understand and relate to. That includes John Denver, Elvis, Disturbed, Andrea Bocelli, AC/DC, Darius Rucker, Heart, Jim Croce, Pentatonix, classic rock and ANY Bing Crosby or Johnny Mathis Christmas music!

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? LinkedIn Daily Rundown, Apple Spotlight

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? Longmire on Audible, or “The BFG” (or “The Big Friendly Giant”) for my son

Night owl or early riser? Not healthy. Bed around 10-11 p.m., up around 2 a.m., back to sleep around 3:30, up at 6, back to sleep around 6:30 and then an alarm-clock awakening at 7:30 a.m.

Where do you get your best ideas? Shower, on a walk or in middle of the night during my 2 a.m. awake time when I am trying to calculate how many hours I can still get if I go back to sleep right now. I then text myself that bit of brilliance and try to go back to sleep.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Anyone who can disconnect after they close their office for the day. I find I am not very good at that and admire those who can.

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