by Bradley Osburn
If Frank Latini’s job is going smoothly then you never have to know his name. If not, then it’s likely your cell phone is nonfunctioning, your Internet is dragging its feet or your cable’s dropped and you’re sending an angry call his way. As the technical services manager for GRUCom’s fiber-optic network, Latini is the point man for problem solving and innovation.
Latini is thin, with salt-and-pepper hair and a smile that almost never leaves his face. The 59-year-old has been a city employee for 31 years now, having started his career in the city IT department way back in February 1982.
Originally from Philadelphia, Latini joined the navy and was stationed in Jacksonville. After a brief return home he and his wife Susan moved back to Florida, he said, because of the weather.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in what was then the equivalent of computer programming from UF, Latini started his career as a programmer by writing the city’s first automated police dispatch system.
In the mid-1990s, the demand for higher bandwidth networks began to climb. Unfortunately, Gainesville was what is known as a Tier 3 territory, meaning that all of the phone companies thought that you’d have to be crazy to spend the cash to put a fiber-optic network in such a backwoods city.
So the city did it itself. Latini was a part of the original team that designed and implemented the plan, in association with Shands, to run 36 miles of fiber-optic cable in east Gainesville.
“It was like an ah-hah moment,” Latini said. “Everybody was looking for more bandwidth.”
The network continued to grow once they realized that the cables ran right past the major business parks in town, so they offered the service to local companies by providing local transport for the major phone companies to small businesses. One thing led to another and another — and a lot of luck came their way, Latini says — which allowed the network to grow and become more popular in town, allowing GRUCom to take more risks, which led to more innovation and even more risks. GRUCom recently unveiled its involvement with the Gig.U project, which aims to bring a gigabit network — which, in the simplest terms is many times the Internet speed than the average user will ever need — to the Innovation District downtown.
The network eventually grew to the point where the city decided it was time to just make it its own entity, and GRUCom as a competitive business with no taxpayer support was officially born. Latini and others were moved into the new company, and he’s been with it ever since. These days he oversees over 30 creative technical minds on five different teams.
“I basically clear stuff out of the way so they can do their jobs,” he said. The rest of his day is spent trying to outrun the ever-advancing march of technology by recognizing trends, researching new technology solutions and working with the business unit to discuss what customers say they want, and trying to guess what they may not know they want.
YouTube and Netflix are good examples of that. GRUCom was totally unprepared for the first fall semester where YouTube became popular. After they noticed a strain on the system, Latini and his team were able to call in for some outside network support to lighten the load. Now, over half of their nightly traffic comes from Netflix, but because they learned from the YouTube crisis they’ve stayed ahead of the rise in streaming video.
“The luxury of working in GRUCom is that you’re on the bleeding edge,” Latini said. “It’s allowed us to be forward thinkers, and to find cost-effective solutions.”