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April 14, 2020

WISP Grizzly Broadband – Fast, Reliable, Unlimited Rural Broadband

On this edition of the Broadband Bunch, we visit with Grizzly Broadband Co-founder and CEO Jason Pond, and learn about his two-decade long journey in the wireless internet service provider industry. We explore some of the challenges he faced along the way, including permitting and FCC policy changes.  We also learn about an exciting new fiber to the premise expansion destined to shape the future of broadband service to Southwestern Montana for years to come. Jason also shares a story about how GIS Technology made a direct impact on search and rescue efforts in West Yellowstone. Hope you enjoy our discussion.

Listen to the podcast

Craig Corbin:

Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. Alongside Brad Hine, Product Director for Analytics Solutions at ETI, I’m Craig Corbin. Our guest today has been a true pioneer in the world of Wireless Internet Service Providers with two decades in the WISP industry serving customers in the Bitterroot Valley of Southwestern Montana. From his start in Manhattan, Montana through West Yellowstone, and now back to his old stomping grounds of Stevensville and Hamilton, he’s now adding Fiber-To-The-Premise (FTTP) with what is unquestionably the best name in the business, Grizzly Broadband, the co-founder and CEO of Grizzly Broadband, Jason Pond. And Jason, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Craig Corbin:

I love the name of the company. The slogan also has a nice ring to it as well: Bringing Fiber to the Bitterroot. And I know that that has been a passion of yours for a long time. Share with us what led you into this industry.

WISP Founder’s Journey to Bring Fiber Broadband to Rural Montana

Jason Pond:

Many years ago, as you said, two decades, a couple of guys and myself had gotten together, and we were doing web hosting and web development. And one of the guys lived out in a rural ranch out in Manhattan, Montana. And we started to figure out some way to get him internet faster than dial-up to his house, and that kind of spurred part of it. The other part was, as we were in Manhattan, Montana, and we needed faster internet for the server that we wanted to locate there, at our headquarters, instead of in a data center, and to have better access to it. This was clear back in 2001.

Jason Pond:

So we met with a company that said, “Hey, you could build a tower and we could put this giant six foot dish on this tower and get you a two megabit connection.” So we said, “Hey, what else can we do with this?” And then we figured out that we could distribute out … The owner was also a real estate developer, so he had a subdivision and we added a tower and continued on. And that was kind of what started the whole WISP era for myself. And now we are here today 20 years later with two different companies and servicing the Bitterroot Valley and a few thousand customers.

Brad Hine:

I heard Craig mention that you offer kind of a hybrid type of network service. You’ve migrated a lot of your pure wireless to a to fixed-line fiber. What drove this decision initially?

Deploying Fiber Broadband – Getting Ahead of the Technology Curve

Jason Pond:

Back in 2014, I was in West Yellowstone and we were at the end of one of the wireless cycles. And about every four years, we get a new wireless update of technology, right? So the technology improves and the next evolution comes out, whether if they go to … starting way back, we did a 211 B and going on. And all the way up now to where we’ve got 802.11 AC out, and the next evolution’s Wi-Fi 6, right.

Jason Pond:

So what I noticed was, back in 2014 was this has been going on the same cycle for many years. So I said, “What’s the way to get out of this cycle?” And I looked at fiber. Some other providers were doing Fiber-To-The-Home at that point. And I went and visited with them and how they were doing it. And decided that, “You know what? I think that’s the final upgrade. That’s what we need to do to get to where we’re not having capacity issues every time we turn around with, whether it’s copper line being maxed out, co-ax connection getting maxed out.” How do you get ahead of this technology curve? Wireless has been great for getting out into the field and rapid deployment, but at four years you’re looking at having to upgrade again, or at least part of your network.

Jason Pond:

And so that’s where we said, “Let’s go with fiber.” Started doing Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) in West Yellowstone, and I sold that network off and I bought this network that I’m at now. We said, “…well some of these areas that really want better broadband are hard for us to reach with wireless and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do a micro PoP when we can just do Fiber-To-The-Home.”

Jason Pond:

So we’re doing a hybrid approach where we’re back hauling some of these networks with a microwave back haul licensed. We’re throwing a gig of traffic on the back haul and building fiber from a cabinet out while we build our fiber long haul back. So instead of building a long haul first and then the distribution, we’re doing it the opposite direction, where we go from a distribution first and then tying together everything with long haul at the end.

Brad Hine:

I am curious about the investment that you make in both of those hybrid networks. You mentioned four years is a cycle for fixed wireless network. Do you think that’s pretty reliable? Do you see things getting easier or do you see things getting harder today and moving forward in the future, in terms of that?

Jason Pond:

Today’s landscape is changing significantly more than what it used to change. So with FCC policy coming out, CBRS and 3.65 has been a long time coming, and all of those changes coming out, which will open up the ability to do some more things in wireless. But it’s still difficult to tell exactly what we’re going to get out of it with the possible adoption of the U-NII-4 spectrum above 5.8 up to six gigahertz, what the FCC may make changes there.

High Cost to WISPs of FCC CBRS Policy Change

Jason Pond:

So when all of these new changes are coming out, it’s very difficult to tell. Manufacturers are hesitant to produce product. We kind of got a little bit of a slap on the wrist, and some companies got a big pain point when the CBRS released. And I think it was just a couple of months ago or sort of last fall, they changed the certification requirements, and so hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment into radios that they thought they were going to be able to upgrade with a piece of firmware to follow the CBRS part 96 rules, all of a sudden are not allowed to be upgraded. They can’t be certified in the new band.

Jason Pond:

So now you have to go buy all new radios. Well so that makes things very difficult financially, to look at this, I mean as a WISP, most of them are privately owned. These guys are putting in their blood, sweat and tears, their own money. And all of a sudden this policy change just affected it to where they’re probably going to have to take out loans. Maybe they get some help with some subsidies through those different, whether it’s the new RDOF money coming out, or the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, or some USDA or RUS loans, and whatnot.

Jason Pond:

But when you look at the hard line side of things, it’s permitting. Not all areas are easy to permit in. Some are very difficult and time consuming and costly, but at least in our area, we’ve been fortunate to have developed a good relationship with the county, cities, state, and have a good process set up to where the permitting isn’t that bad. The biggest expense going into fiber, at least an underground construction is the labor and the machinery to be able to put it in. Which, when I’m looking at a 20 year picture, I think that at the end of the day, the fiber line is going to be the one that’s resilient over all of the changing landscape in the wireless industry.

Expanding Rural Fiber Deployment

Craig Corbin:

I’ve noticed on your site Jason, that at least at last week, your current fiber project was well underway with the new build. I saw a trencher out there putting in fiber on the Skalkaho Highway. And a number of areas are going to be able to take advantage of the expansion from Bonanza right down the way. Tell us a little bit about the new areas of your footprint that’ll be getting fiber.

Jason Pond:

This season, we’re going to end up past a little over 700 locations. Skalkaho Highway to a subdivision called Bonanza Lands. We’ve been working on that project for a couple of years. We ran into a bunch of permitting problems that slowed us down, which we’ve now resolved and got things smoothed out. So they’re well underway on that project. They were out doing some directional drilling this week and continuing on with that. Then we’ll then move to an area in our around us called 8 Mile, which, it’s about 40 miles to the Northeast of Hamilton. And we had a subdivision up there ask us if they would come put fiber in their subdivision. So we said yes and build that one.

Jason Pond:

And then we’re going to start right in downtown Hamilton and work our way out towards our airport. And there’s some new subdivisions going in and hopefully they still actually get to go in based off the current landscape. It’s hard to tell, but what’s the direction we’re going, which that’ll put us through past a little over 500 houses through Hamilton. And those will be the first houses to get direct Fiber-To-The-Home that is not a hybrid setup. So it’ll be all pure fiber all the way out to the Seattle internet exchange.

WISPs and Fiber Broadband Helps Communities & Businesses

Craig Corbin:

Just a quick follow-up. I know that’s extremely exciting to your customers and those that will be the beneficiary of the new fiber. How have the businesses in your area been able to benefit from what Grizzly Broadband provides?

Jason Pond:

We’re able to help each business out. We offer a full suite. One of the unique things that Grizzly Broadband has is, not only where we bring internet fiber to the business and allow high capacity, we also do a custom Wi-Fi. And we will make sure every part of your business is set up so you have fantastic Wi-Fi coverage. We also have a computer repair store and we do IT repair and computer maintenance and remote monitoring and management, to make sure that your business is always online.

Jason Pond:

That’s what we’ve been doing to help the businesses in the area. It’s been a great help so far. We’ve had certain businesses where their server that controls their internal network has gone down on the weekend and we’ve notified them and said, “Hey, your server went down.” And they went in and did a little reboot and they were back up and they didn’t have any downtime for their standard weekly business that they do.

Jason Pond:

We’re trying to be a complete solution provider, where most people just, they want to go in, they want to work their business, and they just want things to work.  We’ve got the expertise in house where we can handle and monitor and help those businesses succeed. Having fiber enables businesses to do, conference calls, video. A lot of people are getting into video. I mean myself included in that. I’m on anywhere from one to three video chats a day. We even have a remote worker down in Idaho Falls that works for us. And he’s on video with us at least one to three times a day, depending on what meeting he’s been.

Jason Pond:

And with the current landscape of the having to go to telecommuting work, we gave option to our team to work from home, and we’re able to spend that up in a matter of one business day. We were able to have people working from home and answering phone calls and still able to do support. In fact, our receptionist is now an at home receptionist. He answers all the phone calls coming into the business from his house, and routes calls out to the appropriate people that need to get it.

Brad Hine:

I want to repeat what you just said: “The appropriate people that need to get it.” And I’m assuming you mean just being connected and for your subscribers, obviously it’s key, especially in light of the new environment, work from home environment we’re all trying to live through. And you mentioned video chat. I mean, I think that’s hugely, obviously it’s hugely helpful for your own staff.

A Day in the Life of a WISP – Operations, Installations and Service

Brad Hine:

Why I have you on this track, talk to me a little bit about, and just describe a day in the life, what would be some of the challenges that you guys go through, and just various checkpoints you guys go through on a daily basis, so we can kind of understand what you guys do every day.

Jason Pond:

A typical day starts … I have a leadership team that is diverse. Our network operations team meets every morning at 8:30 in the morning. And they start talking about what do they got to get done today, and what projects do they have going on, whether it’s a network upgrade. They’re also the ones that are handling the infrastructure construction on the fiber side. So, that construction team is meeting, where are we headed today, what are we got to get done?

Jason Pond:

Our field technicians are dynamically routed. So they don’t necessarily meet every morning, but they’re able to check their schedules online and head out. Most of our field technicians actually start from home and then head out into the network doing installation service calls. They come into the office once a week to gather inventory and have a weekly meeting just to talk about issues or anything to bring up.

Jason Pond:

I’ve got a sales team that’s in house. Our sales team comes in everyday for sales and marketing, operates phones here in the office. Our customer service team is now partly remote, so that was part of our change this week. We’ve got one tier two technician that works from home now and another tier two technician that comes in. He only lives a couple blocks away, so it’s easier to walk to work than it is to set up a telework at home. And then our billing manager here handles all the accounts. She comes in everyday and those guys meet again on a weekly basis.

Jason Pond:

Our computer repair division operates a retail store, so it’s pretty important that they’re all here. But they do do outside service calls. Again, they meet every morning to what’s the day’s tasks and kind of head out for the day. Some people get done around 2:00 in the afternoon, because they started at 5:00 AM. And others come in at 9:00 and work until 6:00 or 7:00 at night. This is the time of year where we got good light, so the construction crew’s working four tens instead of five days a week; getting a little bit more done each day and what not.

Jason Pond:

And then like I said, we do have one remote worker or, sorry, technically we have three remote workers now. In the past we’ve had one at Idaho Falls, who he does all of our design fiber network design and permitting, and then comes up and spends a week usually up in the office and felt part of the team environment up here.

Craig Corbin:

By the way, this is the Broadband Bunch and our guest is Jason Pond, the Co-founder and CEO of Grizzly Broadband, serving the Bitterroot in Southwestern Montana. And so much a benefit, I know over the years that you’ve been in the WISP industry serving that part of the country in such a beautiful part of the country. But you’ve also been involved in your community in many other ways. And one of the most important I think is the time that you spent as a volunteer fireman, also search and rescue. And I know in that part of the world, search and rescue probably has a pretty a high demand activity. Tell us about your time with that.

WISP Grizzly Broadband Using Analytics to Help the Community

Jason Pond:

When we moved up to West Yellowstone back in 2005, one of the friends I made was a search and rescue volunteer. And I asked about how I could participate. I was getting into snowmobiling and ended up being a very big passion of mine even to this day. And he said, “Well you should go down and talk to this guy at the time at the local Radio Shack.” So I got involved with the search and rescue volunteering. Within about a year I was able to move up into assistant coordinator position, and worked volunteering with search and rescue.

Jason Pond:

We ran in Gallitan County, West Yellowstone division, we went on 50 calls a year. And it kind of hit or miss, but very analytical. So we started mapping and graphing all of our calls. One of the unique things that we found out by adding analytics to our search rescue calls was, we noticed one season we had a really high season of rescues.

Jason Pond:

And so we’ve looked at the rescues at the end of the season and we found out that people, most of these, and I can’t remember the exact percentage, this is back in 2007. But a very high percentage of them were left hand turns. We found out that on a snowmobile, if you push with your right hand, which was the tendency for most people new to writing snowmobiles would do, you push on the throttle. You inadvertently squeezed the throttle and create an accident. And so we released that to the rental operators and our call volume went down the next year with that type of accident. Because people were now not pushing, they were being trained when they were renting the snowmobile to pull with your left hand and not push with your right.

Jason Pond:

So just kind of fun things that we were able to do by adding in some of the analytics. And I brought a GIS mapping, GPS background to our programs, and now today they run a great team. They had a busy season this season. I still follow up and stay in touch with the deputy sheriffs and the volunteers that are part of that organization. And they’re still together and learning more and expanding their horizons to better rescue. They have a now heated rescue sled. And I know there were plenty of days that we would have wished we had that heated sled many years ago. So, but a very fun activity that I did. Like I said, I was there for 11 years. The last three years I was there, I ran the whole as the head coordinator and also the board member for that division. Lot of fun times.

Serving on Local Boards and Special Interests

Craig Corbin:

Fantastic that you were able to use your expertise from the technical side of things to benefit what was going on there. And I know in addition to your work there, in your free time, you’ve been able to serve on the board and now president, I think, of an area shooting range with a more than 150 members. And I know it’s still a little early, because the season out there doesn’t start till May. But tell us a little bit about that pastime.

Jason Pond:

My whole family has been into guns. My great grandpa was a Olympic level shooter. So it’s been passed down through, through the generations. Again, up in the West Yellowstone area, the gun range had gone a little bit to disarray. They had an inactive board and one board member finally said, “We need to do something.” Or essentially, “We need to do something or we need to let our lease go.” It’s a forest service lease.

Jason Pond:

We’ve put together a new board. They voted me in as president to kind of group it together. And today they now have, they’ve increased coverage. We added some covering over the regular range so that you can stand underneath shade while you’re shooting. And the trap, they do trap every weekend throughout the summer, and have had such a demand on trap that they actually added a Wednesday night trap shooting and are able to … they’ve gotten grants through Official Wildlife and Parks and been able to increase the security. It’s a very remote range. It’s three miles south of town and a beautiful, beautiful place; nice and quiet and a lot of fun to go out and enjoy in the summertime when it’s open. And also one of the lowest costs ranges you can attend. It’s very self-policed all the way down to solar powered gate with a keypad controller. Kind of driving down a forest service road and all of a sudden you come across this keypad controlled gate in the middle of nowhere. So very interesting stuff.

Craig Corbin:

It sounds like a road trip is due for us. Well, that is absolutely exciting, and so great to learn about what you’ve got going on out there. And anytime that we visit with entrepreneurs that are so passionate about service to the community and making better the way of life for your customers, the businesses, it’s so refreshing to see that. And you obviously have been devoted to the Bitterroot area there in Southwestern Montana for so long. It’s just impressive to learn about what you’ve got going on there at Grizzly Broadband.

Learn More About Grizzly Broadband

Brad Hine:

Jason, could you tell us where we could go to learn more about Grizzly Broadband and your company?

Jason Pond:

We have our website which is grizzlybb.com. There are two brands below our computer repair store is Hamilton Computer Service, and our wireless ISP brand is Cybernet1. Both have websites, they’re both dot-coms. You can follow us on Facebook. And I have a blog that is a little bit stagnant and hoping to get that going again. Here in the very near future, some new content coming out. And that one is: isp2cspandmore.blog.

Craig Corbin:

That is so impressive. And by the way, I appreciated on the website, being able to see pictures of the progress that you were making with the fiber install. I love seeing the trencher out there in use. That’s a nice way to update your customers as well. But we appreciate you being able to visit with us today being a part of the Broadband Bunch and wish you the absolute best for you and your team as you continue with your new fiber project.