RedZone Brings Wi-Fi to Midcoast Maine

By Naomi Graychase

September 08, 2006

The goal: affordable wireless broadband for an underserved area where people can't afford to spend too much.

According to a recent report by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, only 15% of Maine residents subscribe to high-speed Internet service, a number significantly lower than the national average of 21%. The study cites geographical and financial barriers to access as the major reasons for Maine’s low penetration levels.

In an attempt to increase Maine’s connectivity numbers, both the governor and the state legislature are working on initiatives that will help to make broadband service more accessible, even in the state’s many rural areas. One company, Rockland-based startup RedZone Wireless, is already working to bridge the gap between the broadband haves and have-nots in midcoast Maine.

“Our corporate vision is to provide affordable high-speed Internet service in underserved areas of Maine and New England,” says company CEO and New Hampshire native Jim McKenna.

Currently, RedZone employs just three full-time staff, but since launching last year, the company has already brought affordable Wi-Fi (starting at $19.95/month) to ten communities in the Rockland/Thomaston area.

The RedZone wireless network currently covers 250 square miles, and is made up of a combination of proprietary wireless mesh and standards-based 802.11 technology.

“Our mesh radios are used to backhaul customer traffic throughout our mid-coast network,” says McKenna, “and to provide premium service packages to residents and businesses. Wi-Fi is used as an access method for our entry-level service package, and for hotspot connectivity for mobile customers, including local police, fire, EMS, business travelers and tourists.”

McKenna, who has a strong background in the telecommunications business, moved to Maine from Atlanta four years ago.

 “I had started one of the earliest packet-based voice companies down in Atlanta,” says McKenna. “I grew that to four major markets on the east coast before selling in 2002. Then I relocated back to the northeast.”

For two years, McKenna traveled as CTO for a couple of public telecom companies. But he quickly realized that providing broadband to rural or small-town communities was his new calling.

“Midcoast Maine is one of the most beautiful places on the east coast,” says McKenna. “I relocated here for selfish reasons, but once I arrived, it became evident almost overnight that the economy is difficult at best. For Mainers, who are still buying dial-up at $9.95, $19.95 is a stretch. I decided that high-speed Internet here was either unavailable or unaffordable -- unavailable meaning your only option is dial-up, and unaffordable meaning $50 or more per month for slow DSL or some local wireless ISP… The idea [with RedZone] was to serve the underserved and make it affordable.”

After conducting research into various technologies as well as the price points his market could bear, McKenna decided that by using a robust scaleable dual-radio mesh network, it would be possible to provide affordable high-speed access to residents of his new hometown and its neighboring communities.

“The premise is that if you provide affordable high-speed Internet, you can achieve deep penetration rates within a given community -- 20% or more of homes passed,” says McKenna. “These numbers compare favorably to DSL and cable, which have less than 10% penetration for number of homes passed. The model is based on deep penetration and the delivery of affordable high-speed Internet service. It’s designed so that it’s easily replicated from one community to the next.”

Maine's use of broadband ranks 40th in the nation for the size of its population (approx. 1.3 million). Rather than going after large cities -- of which there is only one in the state -- RedZone’s strategy is to target Tier 2 markets (towns of 3,500 - 50,000), of which there are many.

“The idea is to replicate this model,” says McKenna. “We’ve identified 50 other cities and towns in Maine that are good candidates for this model -- basically, any town of 3,500 residents or more that has a central village within the community. What you find in new England is that [the bulk of] the community lives within a one-to-two-mile area, the village center. This is true for towns like Thomaston, Rockland, Camden, Belfast, Bucksport, Hampden, Bangor, Waterville, Augusta, Skowhegan, Dexter and Mount Desert Island. Some of these places have already pursued us.”

Currently, the high-speed Internet options available to RedZone’s potential customers vary by location. Within the larger towns now served by the mesh network, roughly two thirds of homes have DSL (from Verizon) and cable (from Adelphia) available. In more rural areas, options are spotty, but they range from DSL to another wireless service priced at around $50 per month -- much too costly for the average Maine family.

Earlier this year, Maine became the first state in the nation to pass legislation authorizing (and encouraging) municipalities to create their own municipal broadband networks. While at least one of the towns being served by RedZone is using the network for municipal purposes, the networks are not technically “muni” networks.

“[Prompted by legislation in other states requiring municipalities to work with incumbent operators], Maine’s legislature got together and passed legislation that specifically allowed municipalities to fund and operate their own municipal network, or to seek partnership with private entities where the municipality can benefit,” says McKenna.

In the case of Thomaston -- which, until recently, was home to the Maine State Prison -- the arrangement is a partnership rather than a municipal-run network.

“The community in which we started, Thomaston, has our wireless service in each of the [police] cruisers,” says McKenna. “They access the county law enforcement database on a daily basis. Here, if an officer pulls somebody over, they talk to the county dispatch center over the air. The call can be intercepted, or there may be two or three incidents at once. It’s highly inefficient with a lot of cross-talk over the air. If we can allow an officer or firefighter or EMS worker to access critical databases from the field without going over the air, we can do dispatch with a keystroke, and we can do it through encrypted tunnels. We have a secure and very efficient means to upgrade the communications infrastructure.”

“'Municipal' in our case means our network is covering a municipality,” says McKenna. “It’s not owned or operated by the municipality, but it’s a private-public partnership because we have a relationship in that community which has helped us to expand more rapidly.”

Residents in the areas being served, or visitors to the area, can get access simply by turning on their Wi-Fi-enabled devices, selecting the network from the list of available networks, and creating an account.

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