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  • Guest: Jason Guzzo

  • Company: Hudson Valley Wireless

  • The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

    Craig Corbin:

    Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. I’m Craig Corbin, along with my colleague, Brad Hine.  Today, we are talking with Jason Guzzo, the General Manager of Hudson Valley Wireless. They deliver high speed internet access to homes all across the State of New York, providing broadband access, fiber optic, high capacity microwave and fixed wireless technology, connecting homes and businesses.

    Funding Broadband Connectivity Demand

    Craig Corbin:

    It’s a hectic time in the world of broadband service because of the extreme need for connectivity.  How has Hudson Valley Wireless been able to respond to the increased demand?

    Jason Guzzo:

    The COVID pandemic actually came at a very timely point in our deployment. We just got done finishing up the deployment of infrastructure on a few grant funded projects right when the pandemic hit. So, when businesses started closing and people started working from home, we had plenty of capacity and we were able to connect them pretty quick.

    Brad Hine:

    There’s a lot of government funding available today, including CAF II and RDOF funding.  What are the typical funding and grant groups that Hudson Valley is associated with?

    Jason Guzzo:

    We’ve had the most success on the state level, and then also on the local levels as well. It’s very easy to work with some of the local industrial development authorities. Some of the County governments, they have some discretionary purchasing budgets from which they can usually appropriate some of that funding pretty quickly and get that out so we can start the deployment.

    Digital Literacy and Broadband Deployment

    Jason Guzzo:

    When we’re dealing with the States, New York has been one of the most progressive States, and probably one of the best States, in my opinion, in terms of developing a broadband program. We got awarded $2.7 million out of one of their first funds, which is called the Connect New York Broadband Grant. In that grant, they focused on two different aspects. One was on the deployment aspect, but there was also an aspect for broadband adoption, meaning if you bring broadband to a community, and they’re not necessarily used to using technology and devices, how do you train them up and be able to use the devices and the technology effectively? With that program, we also partnered with Cornell University. We started a digital literacy program with Cornell, and we had an educator go around the community, teach the farms how to use the internet. That was our first major funding source getting into the State-funded broadband programs.

    Jason Guzzo:

    Then New York was able to put $500 million into an infrastructure budget. Then they combined that with an additional $170 million, basically that’s called their “New” New York Broadband Program. They had about 170 million that went off in a coordinated auction with Connect America Fund Phase Two. We got awarded $3.4 million out of that program. That’s the program that we just finished up as the pandemic was hitting, so we had plenty of capacity on the network to be able to connect the constituents.

    Brad Hine:

    It’s clear that the Federal government, as well as the NY State government, put a high value on providing broadband access to underserved and unserved communities. Would you explain a little bit about where your business is today, your boundaries, how large you are, how many homes passed and potentially the business community you serve also?

    Jason Guzzo:

    Hudson Valley Wireless primarily focuses in New York’s Capitol Region. New York’s capital is Albany, and we’re primarily on the Eastern part of New York State. We’ve also purchased some network segments out in the New York Southern tier for some long mile transport, and microwave towers. Then we’ve also done that in the Central New York Region as well. Although our focus is in the New York Capital Region, we actually can deploy facilities throughout the Northeast with some of our fiber partners. The current network passes about 150,000 homes, 8,500 businesses, and 450 anchor institutions. I think we’re covering about 3,400 square miles right now.

    Brad Hine:

    That’s quite a large area. Let’s take a step back and talk a little bit about how Hudson Valley Wireless began. Isn’t it a family business?

    Hudson Valley Wireless – From Tupperware to Carrier Grade Network

    Jason Guzzo:

    My father started the parent company about 45 years ago. He was primarily focused on two-way radios, working a lot with the cab companies and the bus companies. During that time, he acquired a lot of 800 megahertz spectrum to be able to deploy that network. There’s a company called Nextel that came in during the 90’s and they needed some of our 800-megahertz spectrum to be able to come into the area. During that time, we ended up selling them the licenses, and that left us with a bunch of towers that were out on the hilltops. We’re like, “Well, now what do we do with it?”

    Jason Guzzo:

    We heard about this thing called fixed wireless, and my father being the engineer that he was, decided to tinker around with it. During that time period, I’ve got a twin brother that joined the business as well, so my brother took the route of focusing on the networks, and I was focused more on the business side. My father and brother were tinkering around, my brother with the networking background, my father with the RF background. They tinkered around in the early days, and I can remember my father with a soldering gun, putting some stuff together. They didn’t really have hardened enclosures at the time, so some of our test units were actually pieces of Tupperware. It’s really amazing seeing where the industry has gone, from 20 years ago to where we are now, we’re in a full carrier grade network. We might still have some of those pieces around and we’ll put them in the museum.

    Brad Hine:

    I hear similar stories when we talk to different WISP service providers around the country. They started tinkering at a certain level and built out wireless communication for their neighborhood and friends just for fun, and before they knew it, they had a full-fledged business going. Tell me a little bit about how you got involved specifically, we heard about your family, but how did your interest peak in this initially?

    Jason Guzzo:

    I joined the family business probably about 20 years ago. I have a background in criminal justice, and I was actually going to college to join the State Police. Then they needed somebody to join the family business, and at that time, to focus on the business-to-business and enterprise aspects. I was doing a lot with PBX deployments and structured cabling and I pretty much ran that part of the business through the early 2000’s into 2010. Then there was a lot of grant funding opportunities that came about, and since I had a lot of experience with writing government contracts, I pretty much drew the short straw. They said, “Well, we need somebody to do grant writing.” I said, “I think I can do that.” I was able to lock down a few grants and haven’t looked back. That’s allowed us to buy some of the carrier grade equipment and grow as fast as we have.

    Brad Hine:

    Your background in criminal justice probably helped when it came to public safety projects that Hudson Valley would encounter.

    Public Private Partnerships for Public Safety

    Jason Guzzo:

    Absolutely. Public safety is one of the main verticals that we deal with. Through public-private partnerships, and that’s another thing that’s allowed us to grow, we’ve formed official public-private partnerships with most of the County governments in our area. Through that legislation, we’ve been able to deploy our network on top of public safety infrastructure, and to the municipal centers. We’ve been able to use those high rise buildings and towers to be able to beam broadband out to constituents.

    Jason Guzzo:

    That also gets us into doing some other private projects for public safety, whether that’s deploying mobile command centers, or linking up emergency operation centers, camera projects, drones, you name it. It’s been good to be able to speak the same language as the public safety, and work on some of those projects. The other thing that’s helping me out with too, is a large part of what I do is dealing with the government and regulatory scheme, so being able to read case law and deal with FCC filings has certainly helped out during this transition.

    Brad Hine:

    Your father certainly was smart when he started the business because he has twin sons, and now he’s got them working opposite sides of the business. What a perfect model.

    Jason Guzzo:

    It worked out pretty good. My brother takes care of the technical side, I take care of a lot of the business side of things. My mother is still deals a little bit with the finance. It’s been a very good partnership overall. Another family member that joined the business is my uncle.  He had another telecommunications company that was doing a lot of professional services. He tried retiring at the time, and we needed a service manager, so we recruited him into the business. It’s been a very good fit for us.

    Brad Hine:

    A lot of our audience are other wireless internet service providers. Maybe describe some of the initial challenges you had at the onset of your growth, as you are getting very involved in the business, and getting a solid hold on your market.

    Inadequate Mapping is Significant Challenge to Broadband Service

    Jason Guzzo:

    I think one of the biggest challenges is trying to identify where to build network to. The mapping data in the early days really hasn’t been that great, trying to identify where is the unserved population, where is the underserved population. The only way to do it, back in the day, was just getting a car and drive the pole lines, and be able to figure out where they strong cable. But, you didn’t know if that was DOCSIS 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, what type of network was available.

    Jason Guzzo:

    I would say that the mapping has gotten considerably better throughout the years, but we still have some significant challenges if the majority of the mapping is based upon the 477 reports, which we all know is based upon one household served within a census block, they deem everything as being served. There’s been a significant amount of effort from the FCC, local, state partners to be able to clean up the mapping effort and get it down to an address level. Hopefully we’re going to start seeing that over the next couple of years, and then myself, as well as the rest of the broadband community, can start focusing our efforts and deploying network in the right places.

    Craig Corbin:

    On Hudson Valley’s home page the first statement you see is “High-Speed Internet with Hometown Service.” We can see that so many of your customers are effusive in their praise of your team on Facebook and other social feeds.  It’s obvious that your company has a passion for service to each community that you serve. Is that something that has made a difference in your success?

    Jason Guzzo:

    Thank you for that. I’ll tell you, we truly have the best customers. We love dealing with these rural broadband deployments.  The customers that we serve out in the communities, they’re great. We also hire our employees from these communities, so they know the installation technician and they probably went to school with him. It’s very interesting business model, where if somebody calls up and they need a service call, they’ll say, “Well, I’m not home, but tell Jeremy to go pet the dog and make a sandwich when he’s over there.” We’re like, “We really shouldn’t be doing that, but we’ll fix your broadband problem.” I’ll tell you what, we truly have the best customers, and that’s really helped us grow.

    Craig Corbin:

    Now, obviously, you’re probably hearing from a lot more folks as the need for connectivity has become even more urgent. Just curious how you’ve approached the increased demand here in the last several months.

    More Than Enough Bandwidth to Meet Increased Demand

    Jason Guzzo:

    It actually hasn’t hurt us that bad, because, like I said, we just got done finishing up this grant-funded service project, which allowed us to increase the capacity of our network tremendously. We were putting in 10 gig transport circuits, geo-redundant cores, we upgraded to Ericsson from an LTE platform, licensed microwave everywhere. We truly had a lot of capacity going into that, so we haven’t seen any blips in terms of network performance because we had more than enough network to handle the upsurge. It happened very timely.

    Brad Hine:

    Because of the global pandemic and COVID-19, a lot of us are working from home now and need better broadband service to our homes. Businesses and buildings are empty because folks are building their own home offices. How have you approached this from a customer side? You spoke so confidently about your customers, it’s clear you have a fabulous relationship with them. How did your processes change once COVID-19 hit for things like troubleshooting, and even dispatching to the homes themselves? To do truck rolls and get folks back online if they’re having any issues?

    Company Culture of Customer & Employee Safety

    Jason Guzzo:

    We approached everything with the focus on customer safety and the safety of our employees. Safety is paramount, no matter what we do. We come with that from a culture because a lot of the work we do is working at heights, and we have safety briefings before we climb towers. It’s always been safety, safety, safety.

    Jason Guzzo:

    When the pandemic hit, we just had to shift gears a little bit and focus on a different aspect of safety, and that was more of the infectious disease side of things. A lot of my guys were already trained with a lot of the knowledge when it comes to preventing the spread of infectious diseases. We go through the OSHA training. We also do a lot of work in hospitals as well. That’s prepared us to, “don’t touch the T zone, don’t rub your eyes, don’t touch your face when you’re doing this type of work.” They’ve already been exposed to those types of projects with safety issues. Now we just take that into a residential setting, and we just want to make sure that we’re not taking the infection and spreading it from household to household throughout the community.

    Jason Guzzo:

    We do offer a zero touch installation, if that’s a requirement. Otherwise, we just ask that the customer maintain a safe distance, or preferably go into a different room when the installer is trying to connect things within the household. It’s always been about safety, and we just want to make sure that we’re doing good to the community and not doing harm by spreading the virus.

    Brad Hine:

    It sounds like a lot of what you already had some safety processes in place because you dealt with hospitals and customers like that. You mentioned zero touch provisioning where can remotely manage connections, keep uptime consistent as well as keep your customer and your employee safe. The pandemic has made a priority out of a lot of remote management practices that actually have been around for a long time. Now it’s just so crucial for a WISP like yourself to be able to have all that functionality internally. Switching gears a bit, how have you been able to impact education in your coverage area? Because clearly, there are schools, educators and students in your area that are requiring a greater uptime. Is it the same process for that also?

    Jason Guzzo:

    At this time, we don’t provide connections directly into the schools for the uptime. There are certain E-rate restrictions where the Federal funding doesn’t subsidize backup connections. Typically, the primary is fiber connections. Our focus has been connecting the students, and connecting the households. We do a lot of category two type services, which is internal connections within the schools, but they typically haven’t needed a lot of backup connections. We’re seeing a lot of the educators that have been working from home as well.

    Jason Guzzo:

    Each school district within our area, and then New York was particularly hard hit early on with the pandemic, a lot of the school districts in our area, some of them are going to be opening up for elementary schools, but maybe the secondary or high schools, they’re only going to be going a couple of days a week, and then that’s migrating to online education. We’re seeing a lot of the colleges that are migrating to online education as well. I think it’s going to be a focus on network resiliency. There will be, eventually, a focus on backup connections for these types of anchor institutions and getting primary internet connections to the homes as well.

    Best of Breed Partnerships for Network Quality

    Brad Hine:

    Switching gears again – partners seem to play a key role when you start to build a successful business like this.  You talked a little bit about Ericsson a little bit ago. Can you share with us some of your partners that have brought success from collaborations with them?

    Jason Guzzo:

    We like to collaborate with everybody, whether that’s a partner or even a “competitor”.  Wire line competitors are some of our best partners as well. They may be better suited to provide the primary connection and we’ll provide a backup connection. We get a lot of our business referrals, believe it or not, from the wire line providers that are in our area. We have a good partnership with them.

    Jason Guzzo:

    When it comes to the manufacturers, we’ve tried to align ourselves with the best of breed partners. We’ve been doing the fixed wireless long enough to know that you can buy a hundred dollar radio that may work for some fixed wireless, but does it scale? At a certain point, you get sick of ripping and replacing equipment, or maybe you’ve added too many subscribers, and now it’s the 50th subscriber that you’ve added to the access point now degrades the service for everybody else. We wanted to make sure that with this latest generation of deployment, we’ve gone with the best of breed partners, we’ve done it full carrier grade, and we have plenty of room to grow. That’s why Ericsson’s truly been a good partner to us because we have plenty of capacity with that new platform, and the LTE network is going to allow us to scale and grow accordingly.

    Craig Corbin:

    The company is already established, you’ve grown, family business is thriving. What’s next? What are the challenges on the horizon for you? What are your goals to grow in the near future for Hudson Valley Wireless?

    Providing Carrier Diversity, Geographic Diversity, and Wireline Diversity

    Jason Guzzo:

    I think there’s always going to be more people to connect. As we start getting better maps, we’re going to identify more of the un-served or underserved population. As people become more reliant on cloud based applications, maybe they need more backup connection. We’re trying to focus a lot more on selling the backup internet connection, have disaster recovery solutions.

    Jason Guzzo:

    One of the things that’s unique for Hudson Valley is we offer true carrier diversity, geographic diversity, and wire line diversity for some of our clients that can’t afford to be down, whether that’s public safety like police and fire or for hospitals and medical care. That’s been a big focus. Private LTE, I think, is going to be growing quite a bit, and once we solve the connected home issue, there’s still going to be billions more devices with Internet of Things that we can always connect. What’s great about the networking business is there’s always people to connect, devices to connect, and we’re just happy to play a role in that.

    Broadband Mapping Geek Discussion

    Brad Hine:

    A couple of times now, you mentioned using maps, and being a GIS enthusiast myself, tell us the role that maps play in your business as a visual tool to see the terrain as opposed to linear data or spreadsheet program.

    Jason Guzzo:

    I could probably talk a couple hours on this because I’m also a mapping enthusiast. We’ve spent, I don’t even know how much money, and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours trying to put together good mapping data. I will say, our partners in New York have been able to provide us with a lot of good mapping data. We have E911 data points, which for those that aren’t mapping geeks like ourselves, that basically shows the latitude and longitude of where the individual households are. When we get out into some other states that may not have some of that information, it’s hard to identify where is the actual house location, or a structure location, because most places put it at where the mailbox is. We’re trying to connect the home, not the mailbox. That’s one of the biggest challenges.

    Jason Guzzo:

    We also have some good building footprint data to know, are we trying to get connectivity to the primary house, or is it going to be a barn or a chicken coop? Our mapping data is so detailed, we can tell you how many bathrooms and fireplaces that people typically have in a one story or two story home. We spent a lot of time and effort into figuring out the mapping component so we can focus our efforts in the right locations.

    Brad Hine:

    How about 3D mapping? Are you using that capability for wireless evaluations of line of sight or anything like that in your footprint?

    Jason Guzzo:

    We are. What we’ve done is we’ve taken all those data points, the E911 data points for the households, and we’ve included that as a layer in our RF propagation tools. We use a Atoll by Forsk, which is a high end propagation tool. We’re able to model our Ericsson LTE networks with specific subscriber modules to figure out what’s the best fit for certain areas. We’re able to import what’s called clutter class, and clutter heights, and then terrain models. We can tell you, what is the tree height in certain areas, we’re able to tell you what the train height is in certain areas, and we’re also even able to tell you if it’s a deciduous evergreen, or if it’s a pine tree in certain areas.

    Jason Guzzo:

    Then the mapping tool basically shoots the wireless signal through all those different obstructions, and it tells us if we have a usable signal or not. What we can accomplish nowadays with a desktop study and a couple of hours, used to take us days and days and days of drive time. It’s nice to see those tools finally put to good use.

    Brad Hine:

    We can talk for hours on this topic but before we close, I do have to ask one more “important” question. Since you live in New York, are you a Yankees fan?

    Jason Guzzo:

    I am a Yankees fan and I’m very happy to see a little bit of baseball going on.

    Brad Hine:

    Yeah, man! It’s about time it came back. We’re lucky to get some baseball in this summer. This has been a great visit and we can’t thank you enough for sharing the story of Hudson Valley Wireless.  Thank you for being a part of the Broadband Bunch.

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