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October 3, 2016
Next 2016

#MBNext16: James McKenna keeps Maine's diverse economy connected

Photo / Dave Clough
Photo / Dave Clough
James McKenna, president of Redzone Wireless LLC, is bringing wireless service to areas throughout Maine, creating a vital link for businesses and telecommuters.

The 2016 Mainebiz Next list

Find out what other Maine business leaders made this year's edition of the annual list.

James McKenna

President, Redzone Wireless LLC, Rockland

91 Camden St., Suite 404, Rockland 04841

Founded: 2006

Employees: 20

Revenue: Greater than $1 million

Contact: 207-596-5700

James McKenna moved to Maine for the same reasons a lot of people do: to enjoy an outdoor life that wasn't possible in the big city.

"I needed to come home to lakes, mountains and the ocean," he says.

When questioned about how he'd make a living here, "I said 'I'll just figure it out,'" he recalls. "Now my life's work has been helping others figure it out by providing them with broadband."

As president of Redzone Wireless LLC, McKenna's role — in his mind — is to make it easier to make a living in Maine, by making reliable wireless internet service available whether you're in the middle of Portland, or on the island of Matinicus.

Broadband that allows residents to telecommute and run a business is critical to Maine's future, he says. It makes Maine more appealing to tourists, young professionals and companies looking to relocate. And it could amplify the impact of out-of-state spending. For instance, if well-heeled summer residents can work remotely, they might stay longer and spend more on art, real estate and restaurants while they're here.

"Broadband and the economy are inextricably linked," says McKenna. "Maine is consistently ranked 48th or 49th in the nation in terms of broadband speeds and availability, and similarly ranked in terms of states in which to do business. By improving broadband we attract new businesses, which in turn will attract investment and create jobs, making Maine as great a place to work and to do business as it is to live. This is a problem we need to fix."

McKenna has been working on that fix since founding Redzone in 2006. In 2015, Redzone launched its 4G LTE network, backed by private investors and a $4 million loan insured by the Finance Authority of Maine. Redzone now covers 28% of Maine's households and aims to be accessible to 90% of households by 2018.

In the past year, Redzone has sped towards that goal. It extended into Bath, Brunswick, Ellsworth, Portland, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Auburn, Lewiston, Westbrook, Augusta, Camden, Rockland, Ellsworth, Waterville, Sanford and Bangor.

"Many of the homes are a captive audience to incumbent providers," he says. "There's a monopoly and we're too far down the track as a technology-based society to tolerate that. Mainers need alternatives and ubiquitous access to something that's fast and reliable."

Redzone also activated a high-speed municipal free Wi-Fi network in downtown Camden, which gives visitors up to two hours per day of free internet access, plus pay-as-you-go options. Now, an average of 400 to 500 people use the network each day.

For businesses, Redzone launched an ultra high-speed service of up to 200 megabits per second — enough capacity to perform bandwidth-heavy functions like cloud computing and digital media production. The service is now in Camden, Rockland, Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Bangor, and Redzone plans to add 10 more communities by the end of 2016.

Redzone also acquired the wireless network assets of GWI, which added hundreds of customers in coastal and island communities on the midcoast and in Penobscot Bay.

For communities trying to stoke development, improved Internet service has been critical.

"It's helping our existing local businesses grow," says Matt Leonard, president and CEO of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. "It's supporting the positive and vibrant business environment that attracts new employers, so essential to our long term economic and community development success."

While the bulk of Redzone's growth will be through private investment, the company will also be looking to public-private partnerships.

To that end, in July, Redzone launched a "Fast for 5" initiative to improve service in rural areas. Redzone will design, construct and manage broadband for municipalities that guarantee a minimum level of service for five years. Redzone is working with two communities on these projects and is in talks with several others.

"Selectmen and city councilors are seeing that this infrastructure is critical," he says.

But to succeed long term the quality and affordability of service is just as important as the breadth of its reach, McKenna says. Subscribers won't tolerate outages, outrageous rates or shoddy customer service.

"To customers the internet is like a light switch. It's either on or off," he says. "This is especially true if someone is streaming a movie, sharing video, talking over Skype or trying to transact business through a VPN."

Rockland-based Redzone has 20 employees and the staff could double over the next 18 months, McKenna says.

Raised in Dover, N.H., McKenna graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and worked in the Navy as a nuclear submarine officer. He spent 20 years working in telecom and living in cities like Atlanta and Orlando, Fla. He moved to Maine 15 years ago with his wife and three sons.

Though McKenna, 50, spends his workdays helping Mainers plug in, he gets off the grid whenever possible, running, hiking the Bigelow Range or exploring Baxter State Park.

"Maine is a special place," he says. "You don't need to take a vacation, because it's in your backyard. And I'm on a mountain or in the woods at every opportunity."

Read more

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Redzone buys GWI’s Midcoast wireless network

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