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  • Guest: Tim McAfee

  • Company: Pioneer

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

    Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of The Broadband Bunch. I’m Craig Corbin. Thanks for joining us. What began nearly two decades ago as a small microwave network designed to connect branch offices of the FA Peabody insurance company in Maine, has grown into a dynamic communications company serving nearly 70,000 customers across the Northern third of the pine tree state. After depending solely on wireless and then DSL, Pioneer Broadband embarked on a shift to fiber technology in 2010 with a network that includes a cross border connection into the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Joining us today is the CEO of Pioneer, Tim McAfee, a man who immersed himself in nuclear theory, electronics, and information technology while at the US Navy Nuclear Power School.

    Craig Corbin:

    We’re excited to learn about what’s going on at Pioneer. Tell us about the challenges you face with broadband technology in a state like Maine, that is more densely populated by trees than people?

    Tim McAfee:

    It’s a big challenge in Northern Maine especially where we have large spaces between all of our people, and everybody wants the fastest broadband known to man!

    The Move to Fiber Broadband Technology after Starting with Microwave

    Craig Corbin:

    Let’s go back to the beginning and the early days of what is now Pioneer Broadband.  The company began with the desire to connect the branch offices of the FA Peabody Insurance Company using microwave technology. Talk about the transition from those early days to what Pioneer is now.

    Tim McAfee:

    We did start out as a wireless provider and built our own microwave network to connect all our branch offices together in order to save money.  Then we used the excess capacity to help out other businesses that wanted to share in the internet access. As time went on, we had really invested heavily in one particular brand, and we decided to stick with that brand for having spares and getting used to and expert at that particular piece of equipment.  So, we really made a big investment in this one company and then they went out of business! And so, we had hundreds of these installations around our area that were barely keeping people satisfied with our internet connectivity.

    Tim McAfee:

    So, we decided to switch to remote terminal DSL, where we co-located our facilities roadside next to a telephone company remote terminal, and we leased subloops from them and put them into our DSLAM for DSL. And we did that for a number of years, too. That came with its own challenges when you’re dealing with an ILEC and leasing subloops from them because you don’t have any control over that physical medium. Once it leaves the cabinet, you don’t get to touch it again until it gets to the customer, and that’s a difficult thing to support.

    Tim McAfee:

    In going through all these pains with microwave and DSL technology, we learned from other people in and around our area that had dabbled in fiber optics. We decided that we needed to make a change into something that was going to last a long time, was not dependent upon any one manufacturer, and something that finally would give us the speeds that our customers desired. And so, we switched over to fiber optics, and one of the first places that we switched was in our hometown of Holton where the company headquarters is located. We had 1,000 or so DSL customers that were paying the ILEC to rent those copper lines and when we did the math, for the amount of money that we were paying them on a monthly basis, we could finance our own fiber optic build in the town of Holton and put fiber to every home and business.

    Tim McAfee:

    So, that’s what we did, we put fiber in every home and business. It’s been a great thing for our community, and it’s been a great thing for our company. It’s allowed us to really expand out into other communities and do the same thing.

    Craig Corbin:

    For those that are not familiar with Maine, Holton, is on the Eastern side of the state, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the border with New Brunswick, Canada. Is that right?

    Tim McAfee:

    We are at the end of Interstate 95, last exit before Canada.

    Craig Corbin:

    When you made that transition to fiber, that service had to be a positive thing for the residents and customers. Talk a little bit about the reaction when that became an option for them.

    Tim McAfee:

    The way that we poised our rollout for the fiber optics was to keep the price the same as what they were paying for DSL but give them a 100 megabits [downstream] over 100 megabits [upstream] as a base package. With DSL, ADSL2+, they were limited to 20 megabits per second downstream over one megabit per second in the upload direction. So, they go from that to this amazing 100 over 100 connection for the same price that they were paying before. It was really not a tough sell to get them to switch over.

    Tim McAfee:

    The only time we had a hard time getting our fiber installs done, where some people just didn’t care to change because they loved what they had and they didn’t find it necessary to change at all. So, we have about, I think it’s 12 customers that remain on the DSL platform just solely because they don’t want to change anything.

    Tim McAfee:

    All of the other ones switched over to fiber optics, and they’ve really enjoyed it immensely. It’s a great change for them, and it’s definitely been seen in the last few months that it’s been beneficial for them to have that upload connectivity that they didn’t have before.

    Maine’s Fiber Broadband Three Ring Binder

    Craig Corbin:

    In the world of fiber, having a great network is key. In Maine, you get to tap into what’s known as the Three Ring Binder, (and it’s not something you put papers in), it’s a very robust optical ring topology design with more than 1,100 miles of open access fiber and 144 strands. Talk about what portion of that infrastructure Pioneer currently utilizes.

    Tim McAfee:

    The Three Ring Binder has three overlapping rings. They overlap around the University of Maine and the center of the state. We take the Northern Ring and the Down East ring, and put them together into one, with just over 400 miles of fiber that we utilize in that merged ring. That serves our area from Bangor, Maine to Fort Kent, Maine. Bangor is about the middle of the state. Fort Kent is the very top of the state, the very, very top, even further North than Holton. That’s the area that we serve on. The Three Ring Binder is an open access network, so any provider that wants to tap into that can lease dark fibers on a five, 10, or 20 year lease. It’s very affordable and it makes investing in some of these smaller towns easier than having to get a circuit provided by a telco provider or another provider.

    Craig Corbin:

    I forgot to mention when you talked about the initial project in Holton, that you got fiber to the home for virtually every single resident of the city. It’s pushing 99%.

    Tim McAfee:

    There’re just a couple of small streets that for whatever reason we didn’t build out to, but we’re at about 98.5 percent coverage rate for the town of Holton.

    Craig Corbin:

    In the early days of Pioneer Broadband having enough manpower had to be a bit of a challenge.  take us back to when it was just you and one other guy getting it all done.

    Early Days as a Rural Broadband Service Provider

    Tim McAfee:

    Those were fun times. The other person that founded the company with me – his name’s Carter Kenny – Carter and I were elementary and high school friends, so we knew each other. He went away to the Army, I went away to the Navy, and we came back home and started this thing. Our early days were interesting.  We’d get up, most of the time we’d do our technical support call backs, we do a few sales calls on the telephone, and then in the afternoon, we’d go out and do tower climbs and residential and commercial installations of fixed broadband with wireless antennas and dishes on the side of people’s homes and businesses. That was how we ran our lives for the first few years. We worked a pretty tight schedule from sunup ‘til way past sundown, and we were the tech support guys, the sales guys, we were the HR people, and the payroll people. We did everything, and it was an interesting time, for sure.

    Craig Corbin:

    At some point, as far as the division of labor, it was determined that Carter might have been a little more willing to do those tower climbs.

    Tim McAfee:

    Carter is the person that doesn’t mind heights. I am the person that is definitely afraid of heights. Being in the wireless business, if I wasn’t going to climb a tower, I had to find somebody that could.

    Craig Corbin:

    Looking back at those days, long days, long hours, but it had to be rewarding pretty early on, when you realized that you were providing such a vital service for your customers and knowing what the response was from them. Talk about that.

    Tim McAfee:

    In the early days, we had broadband wireless internet in towns that didn’t have cable TV, and nor did they have a DSL at that time, so we were the first broadband in a lot of these smaller communities in Northern Maine. Because of the onset of DSL and cable technologies over the years, that wireless stuff that we were using back then just couldn’t keep up with the speeds that they were willing to provide with wireline services, but being the first guy in a town to put broadband into a business or a house, we were pretty popular for a little while. I mean, people would see us at the gas station or at the Walmart or whatever, and be like, “Hey, you’re the broadband guy, when’s it coming to my town?” That’s pretty exciting stuff.

    Craig Corbin:

    That’s been a primary focus of your organization, making sure that you can build as much fiber as you can for as many municipalities across the state. That has to be rewarding both personally and professionally.

    Tim McAfee:

    Yes, it is. We’ve had the opportunity to get in front of a bunch of different organizations. We’ve been in front of economic development people that want to do better by their towns and their constituents as far as broadband is concerned. We’ve been in front of town councils and boards, and we’ve been in front of private investors who’ve determined that maybe they want to be the people that fund the mechanism that brings fiber optic to their entire community. Being involved in that is really exciting for me personally and my team that works with me. I’ve got a team of three other guys that work with me with fiber business development and engineering.

    Tim McAfee:

    No two communities in Maine are the same, no two communities anywhere are the same, and everyone presents a little bit of a challenge. We really like that challenge. We like to be able to go in and sit down with a municipality and say, “What do you have now? What do you want? Where do you see us playing a part? Or do you see us playing a part at all? This is what we’ve got to offer.” A lot of the time, we are sharing information for free, and sometimes we get rewarded with contract.

    Rural Fiber Broadband Funding

    Craig Corbin:

    There’s so much that comes into the picture of being a provider with the challenges of customer relationships, government relationships, and regulatory concerns. A big part of the equation, obviously, is funding when you look at expansion opportunities. Talk about what the current state of affairs is with regard to funding as pertains to Pioneer Broadband.

    Tim McAfee:

    We use the Connect Maine Authority funding mechanism, which is a broadband strategy group that was formed by the legislature of the state of Maine back in 2010, and since that time, they’ve given out numerous grants. They usually have one or two funding cycles per year. We’ve been the award recipient of several grants, totaling upwards of two and a half million dollars since 2010, and we use that money to build fiber optics, and some DSL in early days, out to some of these smaller communities.

    Tim McAfee:

    We also are a privately financed organization, the FA Peabody Company, our parent company, and our holding company, has a lot of the funding mechanisms that we use for private capitalization builds and some of the things that we want to do without grant money. We’re looking at the RDOF remote auction in October as a means of getting into some of the smaller areas that are so high cost to build out that even the Connect Maine Authority doesn’t have enough money to give us fund that. We certainly can’t find a business model that works. With RDOF funding, we have a better chance of developing some of those smaller communities.

    Craig Corbin:

    From a technological standpoint, things change rapidly, but a big part of what you do really depends on geographic information systems (GIS) data. Talk about that if you would.

    The Power of GIS Data Analysis in Fiber Broadband

    Tim McAfee:

    Having access to GIS data from the different towns and our own customers allows us to do a lot of things that we couldn’t do back in the early days. Looking at rooftop surveys and stuff on a Google map is one thing, but having the geospatial data in front of you, where we can draw polygons around certain communities and estimate how much money it’s going to cost to put fiber in them. We’re using things like the VETRO Fiber Map tool and ArcGIS, which are very powerful for us. We can snap a line or snap a poly on down and grab a bunch of points on the map and say, “We know how much it’s going to cost, and we know how much it’s going to take to get it back and what timeframe, what return on investment we’re going to have.” In a matter of seconds, it’s a 10,000 foot view. It’s not detailed, but we can just go in there and grab that and say, “Okay, we need to consider this area in our next year’s budget,” or, “We need to consider this area for great funding,” or, “We need to go to the community and see if they want to do anything.” GIS is very powerful and important.

    Tim McAfee:

    It’s even more important to have good GIS data. We’ve had instances where we get downloads from cities or towns, and the data is just not any good. As a matter of fact, we just finished a project in which we had to go to every single household and get the GPS points manually because the GIS data was so bad, but we needed it. We needed to have it because we use that data for service locations in our own management system.

    Craig Corbin:

    One of the trends now is to look for partnerships and relationships, to better serve areas of your footprint. Relationships with utilities can provide pole rights, the ability to build, and public right of way. How does that impact what you’re doing at Pioneer?

    Downeast Broadband Utility in Maine

    Tim McAfee:

    Our most recent project that we’ve been dealing with for the past couple of years, the Downeast Broadband Utility Project in Calais and Baileyville, Maine. They formed a broadband utility, and towns actually fronted the support, the fiduciary support, in the form of a municipal bond. If for any reason the utility fails, the municipal bond would cover that expense. They looked at this as an infrastructure piece, much like they would with water and sewer, and having that utility, they have the ability to attach to poles.  They don’t have to be a telephone provider, which is a recent change in our state. In order to attach to poles, you had to be a cable TV provider, or you had to provide telephone service. A recent change allows for a dark fiber provider to attach to poles.

    Tim McAfee:

    Another change was the allowance for broadband utilities. So, they put those two things together to get the best bang for their buck, and now, those two communities have fiber optics available to every one of their homes and businesses, as well. The town owns the infrastructure and allows open access to the dark fiber network where any provider come in and provide any service they want over that fiber optic medium.

    Tim McAfee:

    It’s a great idea. There are customers on the network now. It’s starting to bear fruit. A lot of people are looking at it. They’re wanting to see whether it’s going to succeed or fail in the way of generating revenue. Fortunately, at this time, there are hundreds of customers on it, so it is producing revenue.  It’s a very exciting thing to be part of. We were asked by the communities to come in and take a look at what they had. We asked them, “Why don’t you talk to the ILEC and the cable company? This is what we have.” They had in fact, brought them to the table and said, “We’ll go find the money. Will you build this for us?” and they were told, “No, that’s not what we do.” So, they took it upon themselves to find somebody who do it for them.

    Craig Corbin:

    Thank goodness Pioneer Broadband was there!

    Tim McAfee:

    Ta-da! Here we are.

    Craig Corbin:

    There are now about 3,000 homes that will have access to the internet because of this multi-year effort?

    Tim McAfee:

    That’s correct. Anybody that has a utility pole that serves their home, because we’re all aerial here in Northern Maine, we don’t have a lot of underground, so anybody that has a utility pole that serves their home with electricity or telephone or both gets access to the fiber optic network.

    Fiber Broadband Customer Service During a Pandemic

    Craig Corbin:

    As everyone is keenly aware, the last 90 plus days have thrown a wrench into the works with regard to onsite interaction. That has presented a challenge for everyone, but Pioneer has been proactive in regard to how installations can be easier, quicker, and done by the subscriber. This self-install project has been extremely well received and very successful.

    Tim McAfee:

    When it came time to stop going to people’s houses, the phone didn’t stop ringing. People still wanted us to come install. We said, “We just can’t do that right now.” We’re going to look into different ways to help out, but for right now, we just can’t do installations.” While we were contemplating what our next move was going to be, we had our technicians working down through our sales list and doing all the outside work that they could do. They were hanging drops on the sides of houses and checking them off a box. While this was going on, my core team back at the office was saying, “We’ve got a lot of installs that are happening, but we’re not getting any revenue because we can’t get inside the house. What do we do?”

    Tim McAfee:

    So, we came up with the idea of putting together a self-installation kit that was comprised of the indoor interface, which it’s a white plastic box that holds a duplex adapter for the fiber optic cable, and it also has a mechanical fastener that holds the drop cable in there for moving around. We reinforced all that, spliced up an end on that, put it in the duplex adapter, put it all together so that it couldn’t be torn apart easily, wrapped up 50 feet or so of cable, zip tied it together, and then made an instruction sheet and a video as to how to do this thing. The we said, “Okay, we have a self-install kit. All the customer has to do is push that out through the wall to us wherever they drill their hole, or find a hole, and we’ll do the splicing outside. Then they just have to turn on the equipment and plug it into the holes that we have on this instruction sheet. They can do it.”

    Tim McAfee:

    We’ve had children, and we’ve had housewives, and we’ve had senior citizens do this. They really wanted their broadband, so they used the self-install kit and installed it themselves and they really enjoyed it. It was not without challenges, but at least we were able to get people what they needed. We had teachers that needed to teach from home. We had doctors that needed to be able to do things from home. And we told them, “We can’t go to your home, but we can provide you with this self-installation kit if you choose to use it.” It became very popular right before we were able to go back to going inside homes. But we are going to keep it around, and we’ve got a second revision that’s even easier to use with Fieldshield Pushable Fiber Assemblies from Clearfield. We’re making those kits up now and considering that our Rev 2 for the self-install kit.

    Craig Corbin:

    Things that obviously have been of great importance over the last several months – the need for distance learning, the need for folks to work remotely, telehealth, etc. –  have they translated into a substantial increase in the amount of traffic on your network?

    Fiber Broadband Usage Spike During Quarantine

    Tim McAfee:

    Since March 15th, we’ve had about a 75 to 80% increase in overall bandwidth usage on our network.  It’s really interesting because when I pull up my graphs and PRTG, I can tell you when people started staying home and I can tell you when they started going back to work. It is a huge change in the amount of our standard bandwidth that we normally use. We can definitely tell that people were doing the things that they needed to do using our connection. A lot of telehealth occurred. We heard from a lot of people that said, “Thank you so much for having such a great internet connection, because I couldn’t do my tele-health on my last provider’s connection.” Those kinds of things are why we do what we do. We like to game and watch Netflix and all that stuff, too, but if you can change somebody’s life for the better, that’s a pretty neat thing.

    Craig Corbin:

    Out of curiosity, when you were studying at the Navy Nuclear Power School, would you ever have envisioned winding up leading a company like Pioneer Broadband and doing what you’re doing now?

    Tim McAfee:

    No, I did not. My career path has changed a couple of times. When I got out of high school, I really wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, and I wanted to be a test pilot. That’s what I wanted to do. I was young and foolish. I actually got a nomination from a Senator, and my liaison officer lost that information and said, “We’ll resubmit it next year.” I said, “No, I think I’m just going to go join the Navy.” So, getting to the Navy and learning about nuclear technology and electronics, I never dreamed that I’d be doing what I’m doing today. I thought maybe I’d be a technician fixing medical equipment, or whatever, something different. I figured the electronics technician portion would be what I would leave the Navy with and really run with.

    Tim McAfee:

    It was really the computer skills and the basic introduction to microprocessors and computers that I really grabbed onto and said, “I like this whole computer thing.” I learned networking in my last at-sea tour. I had a whole bunch of those hard cover books that you, if you remember from the ’90s, the big Novell CNA and CNE books and the Microsoft-certified professional books, the great big 1,000-page ones. I read a lot of those things on my last sea tour. I came back home, never building a network, I’d never built a network before, and I had a customer that asked me to build a little peer-to-peer network. You can ask my wife, I was just miserably sick for days, thinking, “How am I going to do this? I have no idea.” But I put it all together and built my first peer to-peer-network for a small pet store, and I guess I haven’t looked back since then. Now we’re managing big wide area networks and internetworks.

    Envisioning Fiber Broadband Technology in the Future

    Craig Corbin:

    You’ve seen so many changes over the years at Pioneer from a technology standpoint. Take that proverbial crystal ball and gaze five, 10 years down the road. What do you envision for the world of broadband technology?

    Tim McAfee:

    I think that the realization that fiber is king is going to be definitely proven. In 10 or more years, we’re going to look back and say, “Why didn’t everybody have fiber before?” And there’s going to be so many new and exciting things that we can do, things that haven’t even been dreamt of yet, over this technology. I like to read about the amount of data that can get transferred over a fiber optic cable in their test labs. It’s phenomenal the amount of data that we can push across one piece of glass. And then I step back and look at my network, and I see how many pieces of glass I have and for how many miles they run. That so many things can be happening inside that glass is just amazing to me. We’ve changed as a society because of this pandemic, but technology was there to save the day.

    Tim McAfee:

    A lot of people that didn’t really think much about technology got immersed into it immediately, and I think that that’s going to be another part of what’s to come, is we’re going to be doing things differently now. When you look back at cartoons like The Jetsons where they’re video phoning, we’re doing that now. We don’t realize it. We’re doing it. It doesn’t look just like they do, but we’re now doing that stuff and wrist communicators and whatnot. Apple phones and small phones and watches. It’s amazing to me what technology can do, and it’s amazing to me what can be done that we haven’t even thought of yet.

    Craig Corbin:

    As we wind down our visit today, I’m sure that if you go back to the days when you were doing installs, there were probably were some interactions with dogs that might have created a memory or two. Isn’t there a “three-legged dog” story in there somewhere?

    Tim McAfee:

    There is.  I was doing an installation with one of my employees, and he was in the bucket tightening things up on the house. He said, “I’m pretty much done here if you want to go in and get the paperwork signed.” Now I had seen this dog before, and I’ve never been really a big fan of dogs because I got bitten when I was a kid. I kind of steer clear of him, but I needed to get the paperwork signed so we can move on to the next location. The entrance to the home was around back, and the dog was laying on the second step up. I thought, “I’m not going to disturb this dog.” That was what went through my mind. Now, it sounds funny, but I stepped over the dog and he came undone and just started growling and chasing me. The guy in the bucket got a really big kick out of that.

    Craig Corbin:

    I’m glad that you were agile that day.

    Tim McAfee:

    I was agile. I wasn’t going to let him catch me, but it was really a dumb thing to do.

    Craig Corbin:

    Thank you so much for being a part of The Broadband Bunch.

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