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March 7, 2016

Redzone Wireless eyes 90% Maine coverage by 2018

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Michael Forcillo, left, vice president of sales and marketing at Redzone Wireless, and Jim McKenna, Redzone's president, have plans for aggressive expansion in Maine, saying they hope to provide coverage to 90% of Maine's population by 2018. They're pictured in Portland.

Redzone Wireless LLC — a startup backed by a $4 million loan from Camden National Bank that's insured by the Finance Authority of Maine — has staked its future on wireless technology as a low-cost alternative to traditional fiber-optic and cable Internet connections.

Since launching its 4G LTE network in Portland last June, Redzone achieved its first-year goal of providing broadband coverage for 25% of Maine's households and now has 20 employees. Building on that momentum, in February the company reported that it tripled its broadband network capacity and coverage in Portland; activated its first high-speed municipal free Wi-Fi network in midcoast Maine; and launched a broadband service for Maine businesses with speeds up to 20 times faster than ConnectME Authority's broadband standard.

Mainebiz met with Jim McKenna, Redzone's founder and president, and Michael Forcillo, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, to discuss the company's growth and future goals. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation that took place at the Mainebiz office in Portland.

Mainebiz: What's your footprint in Maine?

Jim McKenna: In the last eight months we've expanded our coverage area to more than 25% of Maine households. Our stated objective is to provide coverage for 90% of Maine's population by 2018, and we have a plan to get there. The technology supports our plan. We have the resources in terms of everything from financing to personnel to the technology and we're executing on that plan and we feel like it's on track.

MB: What differentiates your broadband services from your competition using wireless, fiber-optic and cable broadband technologies?

JM: Our wireless network costs 95% less than the cost of providing broadband via wireline. When you put our equipment on a tower in the center of a community you immediately have coverage to all, or most, of the residents in that town.

So our prices are very competitive in the marketplace. We feel we are offering the best price for performance of any broadband service option.

MB: 2015 was certainly a year of rapid growth. What's driving that growth?

JM: The market demand is one aspect of it, another is the technology. We're moving toward a 'small cell architecture' that's going to inject tremendous capacity and further lower our costs to the point where it allows our network to reach farther and farther into the rural areas. Our ability to deploy 4G LTE on a licensed spectrum is enabled by our relationship with the University of Maine System. We have invested a considerable sum of money and have made a commitment for the next 30 years to lease this 2.5 gigahertz band spectrum from the UMaine system.

It's known as EBS, which stands for Education Broadcast Service spectrum, and it was used back before the days of Internet by education systems to distribute content using video. Well, those days are gone. Now the university systems transport everything over broadband. So it was an asset that wasn't used and the FCC allowed the universities to monetize these assets by leasing them to private entities that can make use of them.

MB: How does your wireless technology address the challenge of serving those more rural areas of Maine?

Michael Forcillo: It's all about economic viability.

Wireline has an area in the state where it is economically viable. But Redzone, with a 95% lower cost to deploy, has a much larger economically viable geographic area that we can serve. With the declining cost of the equipment and improved performance of the wireless equipment that we're getting access to, we see that there's a convergence point where over 90% of the state between now and 2018 will all be economically viable.

We have a path to do it without public support and we will pursue that as aggressively as we can, but additional public support and funding may accelerate that process for us and allow us to get that done a lot faster. We're open to all avenues to get the job done, whether it's private or public-private partnerships.

MB: Has the publicly funded Three-Ring Binder initiative helped you in any way?

JM: It hasn't, to date, helped us. But, in general, our industry has derived great benefit from it. And as we get out into rural communities, we will directly benefit from it as well. We can envision a situation where we are marching through a community where there is fiber from end to end and we are just daisy-chaining small cell 4G LTE in order to cover every home within one square mile of each of those radios.

MF: To add a little to that: The Three-Ring Binder is not really the essential network that connects our 600 towers. When we start using next-generation small cell and micro-cell equipment that is going to be better suited for the Three-Ring Binder. We think we can be one of the companies that can get the most use out of it to connect people in the rural communities.

MB: After getting established in more densely populated areas, what are the challenges of going into rural areas?

JM: There are economic benefits, obviously, to deploying the initial capital in areas where we have the greatest chance of getting a return on that investment. In the first year, you are still 'proving out' your place in the market. We feel that we've done that now. In order to extend the service into the more rural communities, service demand is important. You know, it's great for us to talk about extending service to some parts of unincorporated Maine because there are two dozen people that need it. But, will all of them purchase service, or just one of them? So we need to quantify the demand.

MB: Your recently launched a free downtown municipal Wi-Fi network in Camden. How did you accomplish that?

MF: Key businesses in the local business community see tremendous value in providing Wi-Fi as a community amenity for guests and people visiting Camden. That's one reason.

The second reason: If you own a restaurant or a bar or a retail shop, providing Internet service and a Wi-Fi network that you are paying for and maintaining on your own is an extra cost and liability to your core business. If that can be provided by a third party, and if it's very fast, reliable and you don't have to support and maintain it, it's a true benefit to your business.

MB: What can you tell us about the ultra-high-speed business service you also launched in Camden?

MF: Because we had established connectivity and a tower location in the center of Camden, we're also able to deploy an ultra-high-speed business service that is the fastest symmetrical wireless network operating in the state of Maine with symmetrical speeds of up to 200 megabits per second. That is 20 times the ConnectME standard for broadband and it's the level of performance that can serve any business at any level — cloud computing, digital media production, HD video … there's virtually no industry that we can think of that could not be supported at this level of network speed and performance.

MB: What about the Portland initiative, which is expanding your in-town capacity and extending coverage into Deering, Back Bay and West End neighborhoods?

MF: We have tripled coverage by adding two additional towers. That means three times the coverage and three times the capacity of what we originally launched, because we were rapidly approaching full utilization of our first deployment.

Read more

Redzone adds 7,500 businesses, 50,000 homes to broadband network

$750K in fed funds bolster Sanford broadband access

Redzone buys GWI’s Midcoast wireless network

Redzone unveils $1M rural broadband funding program, Bangor expansion

Rockport residents pass on broadband engineering study

Coverage plan means additional jobs at Redzone Wireless

OTT Communications brings 10GB broadband service to eastern and northern Maine

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