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  • Guest: Brad Hine, Craig Corbin, Felipe

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

    Craig:

    Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. Alongside my colleague, Brad Hine, I’m Craig Corbin. With the demand for every type of communications technology and internet connectivity at an all-time high, service providers are looking for innovative ways to meet the challenge.

    Over  the last  decade, VPNet, based in Puerto Rico, has grown into a dynamic provider of telecommunications, cyber security, cloud services, consulting in maintenance, as well as disaster recovery.

    Our guest today, is the Founder, President and CEO of VPNet, Felipe Hernandez. Felipe, how did your journey begin with regard to the world of telecommunications?

    Telecommunications, the Internet in the early 90s

    Felipe:

    In the 90s we were very influenced by the internet and how it was going to change our lives in a big way. I was involved in telecommunications, radio design coming from that angle – paging and all that type of stuff. I was a young guy, and, of course, I was very excited about what the internet, could do, and I just started playing around with internet and got a little 64K port. And then a good friend of mine asked me, “Can we share it?” I guess the story was written after that.

    I had played a little bit before with WDSs and the old way of sharing of data. It was a normal progression, then suddenly I found myself adding more lines into different modems and this thing became a frenzy with everybody I knew. There was only one other company in Puerto Rico providing Internet services and it was limited.

    From there on it was very exciting, it was a very different world. And then the demand for modems grew and we had fuse concentrators and then eventually business customers wanted internet, but there was no way to bring businesses the internet. Because at that time the only thing available was ISDM lines and we were operating under a monopoly.

    It was not such a thing that we could actually deploy our own stuff. And then the telecom laws changed, but we still didn’t have access to those lines. It was very hard. It was very expensive.

    I looked into radio as a way of delivering this data and started with very low density. I was using a German radio, I remember the name, Wyman Radio. It was a 64K frame relay radio and we started providing services.

    It was very complicated, you had to use a bunch of electronics to deliver it. But from there on we started doing more and added additional sites and repeater sites, and wow. I guess everything evolved very quickly from providing dial access into becoming a wireless provider.

    Attracted to technology and wireless at an early age

    Brad:

    Felipe,  you’ve said that you’ve always been attracted to technology and experimentation. Do I understand it correctly that at 11-years old you were an amateur radio operator and you were experimenting with wireless?

    Felipe:

    Yeah, it’s true. Amateur radio operators, that’s what they do. They have all this fun doing antennas and all that. So for me, I was not afraid of that technology. It was a normal progression, it’s stuff that I liked doing.

    I’m not sure if you guys know this but TCP/IP was invented by amateur radio operators and we’ve been in packet communications from the ’60s.

    Like I said, it was normal. It wasn’t hard to comprehend. It wasn’t hard to comprehend propagation and what we could achieve on certain bands.

    The 2.4 band, the traditional Wi-Fi band, is a band awarded to amateurs. To this day, we have use of that band, the same as the other providers. We were playing with this band well before anyone was using it for internet access.

    Launching the first wireless provider in Puerto Rico

    Brad:

    As a hobbyist, you got started on the 2.4 band. But  as far back as 1995, maybe 25 years ago, you launched your own wireless group in Puerto Rico. It was one of the first, wasn’t it?

    Felipe:

    It was the first wireless company in Puerto Rico. As a way of delivering service to customers, we were the first wireless internet provider. As I was saying, it was a little complicated because we were using telecom frame relay, as it was called, and that’s how we started, and wow. We were the first ones and it took some time to master the networking, but we eventually got it done.

    And in fact, in the year 2000, we won… I don’t know if you guys remember, there was this conference in Atlanta every year called SUPERCOMM. In the year 2000, we won the best built wireless network in the world.

    I don’t want to get too technical, but it was a frame relay wireless access to customers. And then we had ATM switches connecting our sites and it was evaluated by a group of telecom professionals from the US and we were awarded that prize, which was fantastic, in the year 2000. So in fact, we built something… I guess we were one of the first guys who actually proved that we could deliver quality access over wireless, which at that time was nonexistent.

    Brad:

    Craig and I are both technology nerds, we love that. You ended up selling your first company and  then you moved on to a second startup in the islands also. Can you tell us a little bit about IslandNet I believe it’s called?

    Felipe:

    Because I had a non-compete, I couldn’t really do much more on the island, and I had a good friend that was also into technology early on. He was from Jamaica, but at that time he lived in Florida. He lived in this beautiful community with its own golf course and everything. He’s telling me, “I know what we should do now, Felipe.” He sold his previous DSL business and he said, “What do you want to do?”, and I said “Well, I want to do this again.”, and he said “Let’s go to Jamaica.”, and then I said “Sure.” In the beginning, the idea was basically he was going to spend six months of the year in Jamaica and I was going to spend six months of the year in Jamaica. Then soon it proved that was not going to be possible, because of the complications of building a whole telecom company and the complications of getting the permits in Jamaica.

    We had to basically live on the island full-time and I lived in Jamaica for three years, from early 2005 till 2008 when I returned to Puerto Rico after the business became established.

    Island Networks was basically the first MPLS network built over wireless. We were all Cisco on every side, we were proud of having an MPLS network over wireless.

    We were using, at that time, the Alvarion product and it proved very popular. We were very happy, but then I got homesick and decided to go back to Puerto Rico and do it all over again. I figured that I wasn’t going to stay in Jamaica forever, I missed my family and friends too much to stay.

    Starting over. Creating another wireless company from scratch.

    Brad:

    . You were in Puerto Rico and started a technology and wireless business, went to Jamaica, and now you are back in Puerto Rico years later. Tell us what you did to continue on this journey.

    Felipe:

    it was like starting all over again. Even though I had the knowledge I had put all my money in Jamaica. Building a business in the islands is never easy. Jamaica was a lot more complicated than Puerto Rico, if you can believe that. Getting permits was a lot harder, we had to put all of our resources and our time and our money into building it.

    I came back to Puerto Rico to build a company without a dollar in my pocket. I had a lot of experience and that’s usually the biggest asset you can have when you are trying to start a business.

    I mean, stick to what you know, and it becomes a lot easier and typically takes a lot less money.

    I started becoming the sales guy, the network guy, and installation guy. And then I was lucky to bring some of my ex-employees from my previous company to come and help. It was organic growth and almost 12 years later we have thousands of business customers and 43 employees.

    Seeking Outside Investment When Build a Wireless Company

    Craig:

    You talk about the organic growth and starting with just a handful of employees. Apart of how you approached your projects was that you wanted to do it with your own capital. You weren’t looking for external investment. Talk about that decision.

    Felipe:

    it is a complicated subject. In my case, my first business I started with my own money.

    Eventually the business grew tremendously. When it was sold, it had over eight million dollars in revenue. At that time, I had to get investors. My experience with investors… let’s find a word that makes sense here, is that they were not sophisticated when it came to telecom. It’s hard because it is a different industry, which just makes it so much harder for a person to build a company without external investment. So I’m not against external investment.

    Felipe:

    At that point, I was against using institutional investors to build my new company. My experience with outside investment was not great, and I felt that the business could have been a lot bigger, the business could have been somehow different because of the approach of my investors.

    Don’t get me wrong, if that is the only option you have to build a company, please go with your dream. I mean you need capital to do this. If you have the experience, then the capital becomes a little more secondary, because you can convince people what you know and the experience that you have.

    I am not trying to put anybody down by saying, don’t go and get money from additional investors. It typically makes a lot of sense, but you need to find the right ones.

    Hurricane Maria. The Challenge of Weather in the Wireless Industry

    Craig:

    Transitioning to challenges that come with growing and operating any telecommunications interest, obviously where you’ve been the weather plays a huge role in all the factors that you deal with. Talk about how your company responds to mother nature.

    Felipe:

    Late 2004, when we already started building our first network in Jamaica, we had a hurricane. It was Ivan, it was very strong, 150 mph. We had a few customers, but everything got wiped away, I mean it disappeared. We couldn’t find the radios, the masts, nothing. Everything was taken away by that storm.

    But since we were a very small start-up it was sort of like a lesson and we managed to understand a little bit about the nature of the wind. We had some experience with previous strong hurricanes, we thought nothing like that would affect us. Jamaica was a lesson in 2004 with Ivan. And then I never experienced another one that big in terms of magnitude until Maria That was 2017.

    Felipe:

    As you can see, there were a lot of years in between major events. But Maria was a game changer. I mean, when you have 200 mph, some areas got gusts of 220 mph, there was nothing standing. I mean, there was nothing standing, not a single customer that was the experience.

    There was a tremendous amount of damage. There were just hundreds and hundreds of towers down around the island, there was no power. I guess we were fortunate that what we built was built with that in perspective, so we ended up losing only two of our own towers.

    We lost in total about 20 towers where  we were co-located, but those 20 towers, they were mostly somebody else’s. We were very fortunate because we had built the stuff to our liking and made sure everything was built as hurricane proof as we could.  We were fortunate enough that if a hurricane passed from Wednesday through Thursday, by Friday we were already up and running in our office.

    Felipe:

    We’re not in San Juan, we’re actually in Cidra, which is a town in the center of the island. We’re a rural company and there was nobody around us that had any kind of service, so we were very fortunate to connect the hospitals, to connect the major offices, to connect the major businesses very quickly within the first week of the storm. That event was quite traumatic if you want to call it something. It pretty much lasted for the next seven months before we could get some sort of stability. Most of the fiber took about 10 months to get reinstalled, so we were working for this for the next five months after the storm, pretty much 100% wirelessly. Everything was riding on wireless backbones and wireless connections.

    Brad:

    You have not had it easy in the last few years. How important is that, you mentioned some of the operations in getting the fiber out there and setting up new towers, how important is that construction crew and that you build that seamless process to do things quickly after a storm like that?

    Felipe: I guess the code might be different from a place that doesn’t get these kinds of storms. But I’ve been reading about places in the US that are getting hurricane force winds out of some kind of weather systems that are not related to a tropical ones.

    I guess everybody should pay attention to how you build your stuff. In our case, we like to use our towers and follow the actual codes by the manufacturers. You want to use the good brackets for the antennas, the ones that do not corrode. Because all the stuff that corrodes, that might be there in the tower, during a storm it might just break. So, we’re very, very cautious and careful when we do our installations. We make sure that we don’t have any large trees close to our guide wires. We don’t want them bringing down our towers and so on.

    Felipe:

    Paying good attention to that is very important. And also doing proper installations at the customer sites is very important too, because you know you might have your network up, but if you have to send your trucks to go back and bring customers up, that’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort that you might be needing somewhere else on your network or for rebuilding purposes. From my perspective and the Caribbean perspective and perhaps anybody that is listening that is close to hurricane force winds, you cannot cut corners when it comes to building.

    Using Solar Energy and Artificial Intelligence for Wireless Networks

    Brad:

    I understand that you use quite a bit of solar power and even some artificial intelligent applications to run some of your businesses in those times.

    Felipe:

    Yeah. One lesson that Irma, which was two weeks before Maria, taught me was that the power system, the grid system in Puerto Rico was in shambles, was in very bad shape, right. The power company was in bankruptcy, it was very bad. And then during Irma, which was not an island-wide event, Irma only touched the east coast of the island, we had major, major failures of power. Then it got complicated. What I mean by complicated is that as we’re trying to bring them back-up, because they already fixed the problem. The system was overloaded and primed to fail again, so I said, “This  is in worse shape than what I thought.”

    Felipe:

    Immediately, a couple of days after Irma, I purchased a large number of solar panels. I had this hunch that this year was going to be different. And it was.  Maria came over and then we didn’t have power at most of the sites for the next seven or eight months. What we did immediately after Maria was, we started putting solar panels at every site. Fortunately, we didn’t have any major issues with our towers.

    That gave us time to just focus on adding solar panels. We added additional solar panels, depending on the amount of consumption, but typically went from two solar cells to four and then we went on from there, depending on which site it was, we added more panels and that pretty much kept our network running. Just as example, today I will say probably more than 30% of our sites are running 100% of the time on solar power.

    Almost all of our towers have solar power. I mean the ones that don’t have solar power are the ones probably on tall buildings where we have a limitation of space. But about 30% of them are running all the time on solar power, so we don’t even worry about having a grid anymore.

    Felipe:

    We’re Caribbean, right. You would think that the sun is always present. But we still had to build some kind of tool to monitor the performance and the behavior of this systems. We ended up building an application based on Splunk. Not sure if you guys know Splunk, that software will allow us to build a dashboard that will use AI or machine learning to basically get a log file from each one of our own devices at every site. We created historical information on the sun and how it is affecting our towers. And pretty much now we know how long it is going to take before we are going to lose power at a site or what we should look for when it comes to the season.

    Working with Microsoft: The Redverde Project

    Brad:

    You mentioned that you  are not located exactly in San Juan, but a bit more remote in a mountainous region, connecting the unserved and the underserved. I know you’ve partnered with Microsoft recently and you had a project that you shared with me, and I would love for you to share it with our audience, Redverde. You’re starting to go into some of these residential areas switching your model a little bit into more of a commercial model. Can you talk a little bit about that?

    Felipe:

    Before the hurricane we were a 100% business provider. So we would provide connections to businesses and credit unions and hospitals and so on. One of the things that I had decided when I came from Jamaica, was that I wasn’t going to worry about the consumer model. I was going to focus on having fun and just to build. Since I am a technology guy too, I love to bring the different aspects of technology and not so much the connectivity side. So I figured that, as a company, I was going to be moving away from connectivity and focusing on the actual applications. That was my road map.

    Felipe:

    And I was very clear. You could ask me a year ago and I would have said, “No, I am not going to get involved with the consumer. I’ve done it before and it’s just a pain.”. But then after the storm, when we got the calls from the employees of our business customers saying, “By the way guys, I know you provide only business services, but how about connecting my house?”.

    And I was like okay, well we did a little bit of that until I looked into the actual need of some areas. As I started talking to more people outside, I decided to start this residential pilot. This pilot program was my own internal process of convincing myself not to do this, because I sincerely didn’t want to do it.

    Revenue was good, but I am going to do this limited pilot program only and I was 100% sure I was going to kill it afterwards.

    Narrowing the gap. Investing in underserved communities.

    Felipe:

    When I spoke to more people and I saw there was a need. When I see the bigger companies, the larger telecom companies not investing in these communities I said this is wrong. Coming from a country who had economic issues who was completely pretty much destroyed, ravaged by the storms, we need connectivity right away. And then we need connectivity in these communities that the big companies never… I mean they build telecom there years ago, but then after the storm they decided not to invest anymore. So it became my interest. I was more interested in that. And then one day I was approached by a friend of mine who said “Listen, there is this community in really bad shape”, so I went there, and I spoke to some people. And when I left that place, I was changed. I was some other person. I spent the whole day in the community, they made my lunch, I had conversations with a number of neighbors, I met their kids and they were are saying “Can you really do this? Can you come to this community and bring some internet?”. And wow.

    Felipe:

    It was a soul changing. It was a complete change of heart at that point and then it became a mission. It was very easy. It was very easy to be dragged into that, because it felt human. It felt that you were really making a difference.

    Craig:

    I want to continue on that thought, because now more than ever you talk about connecting the unserved, the underserved. I know that you’re talking about a huge number of people that are benefiting from the work that you are doing. And back to the fact that you guys are utilizing the solar power, you’ve got fiber where you need it, but the wireless gives you the flexibility to very quickly and easily get into areas. Talk about how that is shaping the future of VPNet.

    Partnering with Microsoft and the Airband Project

    Felipe:

    After I had a change of heart, I looked into this project by Microsoft, the Airband project, which I was touched by its approach and their  ideas of connecting people. Not from the angle of just giving them access to all this stuff. This was focused on connecting the people who need that so they can grow out of their economic misery.

    I was touched immediately by it and I started a conversation with Microsoft, and I told them “Listen, there are these communities that were destroyed by the hurricane. These people have not received service back. I want to do this.”. They came down, they did due diligence on our company, they looked at what we’ve done, they met our team, they left Puerto Rico convinced that we had what it takes to take the service in a serious way, in a committed way, to these communities and they decided to fund this project with us.

    Felipe:

    And it has been absolutely incredible going to all these areas and now with this investment we can commit to building quality systems like we like to do. We can commit to bring high capacity. We can commit to bring real connectivity that has a bigger, better availability than fiber or the traditional wire systems and we are changing communities. This past week, we were connecting some schools that were closed. These schools were closed by the government because of funding, but then the communities decided to reopen them and made them communal centers where people would go there. And during the pandemic they are… the kids are going there to study. There are teachers who are giving all their free time to teach these kids. We were immediately committed to help and we’ve been doing that. We’ve been going to these communities, connecting these centers, bringing connectivity, wifi, bringing computers, desks, anything that these people need in order to get these kids back to studying.

    Felipe:

    It’s amazing. I think it is amazing the work that we have been doing with Airband. I am very, very happy with my team. When I mean my team, my local team, but also my Microsoft Airband team Becky, Erica, Paul – all the great guys there who are really committed to Puerto Rico and really committed to taking connectivity to the underserved and the unserved.

    Brad:

    You mentioned some of the larger carriers, it’s not always economical for them to support some of these rural areas and that responsibility often falls on WISP owners like yourself that we’re seeing more and more throughout United States and through the Caribbean. It’s great to hear you partnering with folks like Microsoft. What is the URL that our listeners can go to find this project?

    The green network. Redverde.com

    Felipe:

    We launched a new website and a new brand name for our services and it’s called Redverde. It’s like the green network, right. So you can go to Redverde.com, that’s R-E-D-V-E-R-D-E.com, Redverde.com. It’s in Spanish, so you guys have a chance to practice a little bit Spanish. You will be able to figure it out. But I have to say this has been the most satisfying thing that I have done in my business career. So I am extremely happy with this.

    Felipe:

    And then just to make things even more incredible for me, my kid who just basically finished up college and his business degree, he jumped into the business and he’s running that side of the business right now. All the marketing and all the different things and he has a very engaged group . That’s given me some time to really focus on expanding and going to these communities, while he’s here working with the guys and trying to build our service. I am engaged talking to majors, talking to communities and making sure that we understand the need and how important it is to take it in time frames. I’m very happy that this thing has… as I said before has my heart, it’s bringing me satisfaction that I’ve never had in my business career.

    Two companies. One vision. Spreading technology throughout the Caribbean

    Brad:

    We’ve talked about your start. We’ve talked about some of the challenges you’ve had as a business owner early on starting a few businesses. It seems now you have Islandnet and you have VPNet, sister companies. I assume you run them very similarly. It looks like they’ve both grown tremendously. You still maintain a lot of communication between those two companies?

    Felipe:

    Absolutely. Typically, what happens is that since my partner Andrew is the technical guy, and I’m the systems guy, we take on different roles, but he’s the CEO. From early on, we had an agreement that I was going to worry about the technical decisions, and I will try them in Puerto Rico and then I would introduce them to Jamaica. We’ve been doing that, usually test the technology here and then it’s passed on there. We trained the guys, so we started with all the cyber security stuff and disaster recovery in Puerto Rico and then we’ve been moving it to Jamaica. We’ve just moved it all. We’ve opened up our security operations center in Kingston a couple of months ago. We had the one in Puerto Rico open now for just about two years. So now we launched the Jamaica one in the beginning of the year. So we’re ready there. We have a great team of cyber security professionals in Jamaica and Puerto Rico ready to respond to any threat that happens in the Caribbean.

    Felipe:

    And then we’re moving now into the disaster recovery stages. We’ve been doing a lot of disaster recovery in Puerto Rico, because we had a major disaster, right. If Jamaica ever gets into a situation, hopefully not, to receive any kind of large hurricane like we had here in Puerto Rica, I think Island Networks will be in great shape to come back quickly. Because we established many of the controls and many of the same ideas that worked here, not only in building codes, but also on disaster recovery. So it’s an exchange of information. They do some things better than us and we learn from them, and we do some things better than them and we teach them. So it’s fantastic.

    Felipe:

    I love to work with Jamaicans. They are great guys, they are very technical, they are very fast in technological adoption, they are early adopters in pretty much any technology. The team in Jamaica is just an amazing team as well. You know it’s a little different, because in Puerto Rico we speak Spanish and there we speak English, but we’re all Caribbean people so… I just love it. I love my team in Jamaica. I love the business there and I’m very fond, also, of my partner Andrew Massias.

    Brad:

    Well, that is an important point as we all know in the WISP community. It’s so important for us to all work together and share best practices in a situation like yours. What a fabulous opportunity you have to grow in two different regions, in the Caribbean and take note of each of them. And it seems like you’ve been through everything, hurricanes, storms, disaster recovery, you name it. Thank you so much for bringing your expertise and sharing it with our WISP community. It is much appreciated.

    Felipe:

    Absolutely. I’m available for anybody who wants to call me up or just shoot me an email at fhernandez@vpnet.net. Find me on LinkedIn, drop me a note and I’d love to share the little knowledge that we have.

    Craig:

    It has been a pleasure to hear you share the passion with which you have built VPNet, your dedication to serving the people who can benefit tremendously from connectivity and just wish that more providers have the same dedication and passion that you bring each and every day.

    Felipe:

    Absolutely, likewise for me. I’m very happy that you guys invited me to have this chat today and I wish you great luck here on the podcast. Continue doing it. It’s fantastic. I’m sure that this wealth of knowledge from everybody that comes here is helping a lot of people. I invite everybody to find their true passion in business, to find a mission, and growing it will be a lot easier, I can guarantee that.

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