December 20, 2019

Network Densification with ZenFi Networks

In this episode of the Broadband Bunch, we speak with ZenFi Networks, President and COO, Enzo Clemente about network densification.  Enzo shares his experience with designing and deploying broadband networks in large metropolis, he outlines some of the challenges with 5G permitting and provides advice to municipal leaders to be more fiber friendly.

Enzo Clemente: I began my career in telecom about 20 years ago. I’ve always been operationally focused and have specific discipline in architecting and building communications infrastructure, particularly fiber network systems.  I’ve enjoyed working with governing bodies and utilities to get approvals and rights to install these systems within the public rights of way. That’s always been a pretty big challenge, but it comes with quite a bit of reward once you get that accomplished.

I suppose I’m most known for starting Cross River Fiber in 2011. Cross River was a New Jersey based fiber service provider that had a really keen focus on optimizing low latency fiber connections between electronic trading engines like NASDAQ or the New York Exchange in New Jersey. And essentially my job there was to create the shortest distance fiber paths between each of these sites so high frequency trading firms could have the ability to transmit market data and perform trades microseconds or so faster than their competitors who were on antiquated systems.

Three years later we partnered with Ridgemont Equity to fuel growth and provide bandwidth more broadly to large enterprises and carrier customers. And most recently merged with ZenFi Networks to create a regional platform to support the growth of mobile network deployments.

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What is mobile densification?

Enzo Clemente: We think of mobile densification as the deployment of mobile equipment and nodes just about everywhere and anywhere within close proximity. In New York City there’s a requirement for mobile access points on just about every street corner. In 2014 ZenFi Networks had the foresight and identified what would become today’s network constraint, which is to connect fiber to thousands of mobile endpoints in a dense environment. It became apparent that legacy fiber networks were built to solve a completely different networking problem. We often refer to that as backhaul connectivity, which certainly plays an important part in the fiber and connectivity ecosystem. But those connections would be between an enterprise business and data center locations. They would not necessarily be able to support the rapid growth of what we’re seeing now in the evolution of urban mobile densification.

In 2014 ZenFi Networks implemented what we call dark fiber 2.0 or a fronthaul fiber network. ZenFi Networks’ first major project was to construct this fronthaul network and connect thousands of the linked New York City kiosks. The unique characteristics of a fronthaul fiber network is the design to create fiber breakouts and access points in underground manhole systems every few hundred feet versus legacy backhaul networks, which would typically be accessed at a spliced enclosure about every thousand feet. Again, the right architecture is vital in maintaining time to market deployment and economies of scale.

The other thing is that while we’re building it with access, we also make sure that we upsize the cable count to support the demand. We have built cables that are anywhere from 432 count all the way up to 1728 counts. So, we are building a network that is compatible with the evolution of mobile densification, but it’s also backwards compatible, meaning it can easily support applications that were driven by legacy fiber networks in the past.

Network Densification Permitting

Pete Pizzutillo: There’s a lot of talk about 5G and the small cell architectures that some of the tier ones are trying to deploy. And there’s a lot of concern about the densification of those towers in metropolis, big metro areas. But it sounds like you guys have been dealing with this for five or10 years now. Maybe you give us some insight into what you’re experiencing from pushback from the community or maybe some regulatory issues that folks aren’t aware of that may kind of hinder some of that progress.

Enzo Clemente: We deal with it on a day-to-day basis. What’s interesting is that there are procedures in place for permitting and installing these mobile networks in New York City. We are a New York City mobile franchisee. There’s even a specific reservation process that gaining access to street utility poles to install mobile equipment such as radios and antennas. However, while there’s this interesting franchise and process, it’s far from being efficient. There are a handful of mobile franchisees today which are submitting hundreds and hundreds of applications as you can imagine. The city can’t keep up with the demand. So, you could tell with all this hype around 5G and the evolution of 5G, the landscape is becoming more and more crowded.

One of the things that is a bottleneck, is servicing each mobile end points with power. We have a dependency on the electric company to deliver metered service and that’s a major setback. Their priority isn’t to make sure that they’re providing dedicated meter power to thousands of communication nodes. Their priority is to make sure their direct consumers always have electric and their lights are working.

Our role is in our underpinning architecture, think of us as laying the foundational building blocks for a communications infrastructure. Our underpinning architecture is comprised of connectivity, space and power.  Connectivity is our robust fronthaul fiber optic network with ease of access, convenient access and high capacity. Space is what we like to call citing solutions that would be on existing utility poles, rooftops what have you and edge co-location facilities. And essentially the spacing houses mobile radio as pole top antennas, compute and processing equipment. And I mentioned before, a big challenge is power. Power is our ability to work with utilities to source and deliver power to each and every connected point.

We plan and construct networks that provide a runway for tomorrow’s technologies. In this case, we talk about 5G. I say 5G is just not there yet. Most of what we’re doing and supporting today is 4G and LTE technology.

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5G and Rural Broadband Markets

Pete Pizzutillo: There’s a lot of conversations around the rural digital divide, does ZenFi Networks have a role in helping bridge that gap?

Enzo Clemente: I wish I could tell you we had a really good play, but it’s been a challenge. And it’s not just a challenge for us, but it’s a challenge for any neutral party, any neutral host, and any mobile network operator out there. Unfortunately when you get out of the metros and you get into the more suburban rural environments permitting and obtaining rights to install is just much more difficult. Simply, the governing bodies are just not familiar or don’t know how to deal with the influx of these requests.

For example, in New Jersey where we operate a prolific fiber network, there are 565 municipalities, each of which has its own rules and ordinances. To get some change, you have to go through an approval process with council members and residences. They all take part. Needless to say, it takes a very, very long time just to move the needle and more importantly when it comes to anything mobile or wireless or cellular, these communities have a real hard time grasping that there’d really be no health impact. And there’s very minimal aesthetic impact.

Lots of times they’re fed with partial datasets and misinformation, and they just don’t want to make the mistake by providing authorizations or consents to anyone for mobile deployment. So we’re sort of at a standstill in many different ways with the municipalities. I just think it’s really important to remind them and be really transparent with them. We all live in these communities. We all have children. We all want to preserve our property values. We all want to make sure our landscape isn’t compromised.

I feel it’s our job to be a trusted advisor. We have an obligation to educate them first on how the communications infrastructure we’re building today will continue to facilitate the conveniences and the efficiencies they’ve come to enjoy in their everyday lives. Like I said, with 5G and everybody talking about 5G, we’re still in the very early innings. So it’s really not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s rather when it’s going to happen and become fully embraced by the communities.

Pete Pizzutillo: What we are noticing is that economic development folks think about broadband as an additional industry to consider.  I think what we, in the industry, see  that broadband is an underpinning capability for all industries.  So not being fiber friendly as a municipality will end up hurting municipalities in the long run. And that affects distance learning, telehealth and the litany of other digital capabilities that are not going to be accessible to that marketplace.

Enzo Clemente: Yeah, they certainly don’t want to be in a position to have to react to this. I think they’d rather be in a position of planning and working with neutral providers like us. I mean, our approach  as a neutral provider is to facilitate network architecture that accommodates not just one carrier but multiple carriers.You don’t want to be in a community where you have carrier A come in and they get an approval to put up a 50-foot wooden pole and you green-light that and a month later you have carrier B who’s coming in to put up an 80-foot monopole in a fenced area, and next thing you know, things get messy. And I think as a neutral provider, we’re just trying to educate and be really transparent. We think it’s our job to inform them. We should and they should understand that we’re all sort of in this midst of what we like to call the fourth industrial revolution.

Pete Pizzutillo: When you look at how fiber is growing and the investments in cable, other technologies and satellites that there’s a lot of desire to provide broadband to as many people as possible. But I wonder if it’s economically the best approach, and the comment that you made about planning for scalability and shared resources and shared infrastructure.  I think we need to think about it from a sustainability approach. I’m not sure we benefit from having a bunch of bespoke systems and infrastructure – that’s not sustainable. Eventually somebody is going to go out of business.

Enzo Clemente: You hit the nail on the head. I mean, the economies don’t scale, and it just becomes really ugly. I think you got to get it together and work with each other is what it’s going to come down to.

Pete Pizzutillo: So do you guys have advisory services? I mean, did you come in and help people think about feasibility studies and that kind of architecture in terms of how to not only assess their legacy and how to leverage it, but then also how to plan to the fronthaul, the robust fronthauls you mentioned.

Enzo Clemente: It’s part of what we do. Again, I think we say it often that the differentiator between us and the bigger companies out there is that we are trusted advisors. It’s part of our sale. We’ve got to get you to understand the technology and get with us and become a partner as opposed to just a customer.

Advice to municipal leaders

Enzo Clemente: The municipalities, the governing bodies, the metropolises should work with carriers, neutral providers like ourselves, become educated on a deployment plan that scales well beyond the next 10 years or so. We’re in the early innings right now that it’s all about trying to gather and consume as much data as we can and make sure that we’re really overachieving in our deployment. And that no one feels like, specifically smaller municipalities, that they’ve made the wrong decision. I mean, that’s really what it comes down to. They’re afraid to make decisions because they just don’t know what they don’t know.

Pete Pizzutillo: I think the more that they can connect with folks that are heading down this path and they’re starting to see some loosening up of the conversation. I’ve been to a couple events recently where the folks are starting to think about regionalization, economies of scale type of thinking to help these smaller municipalities not only leverage what other people have done but also band together to try to figure out how to build more sustainable, more effective systems or architectures moving forward.

How can the listeners learn more about ZenFi Networks?

Enzo Clemente: Visit us at our website www.zenfi.com or on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter

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