INCOMPAS Member Spotlight

Continuing to Pave the Way In Digital Connectivity Solutions: ZenFi Networks’ Unconventional Innovations

INCOMPAS Member Spotlight Interview with Robert Sokota

Our own Chief Administrative Officer and President of the Wireless Division of City Bridge, Rob Sokota, sat down with INCOMPAS during their Member Spotlight Webinar. In this interview, he discussed how ZenFi Networks came to be what it is today, our different innovations such as the LINK NYC Kiosk Network, telecommunications industry trends and much more.

From the company’s founding in 2014, through their merger with ZenFi Networks, Sokota was the General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer of Cross River Fiber. Bringing a wealth of experience from his 20 year career in the telecom industry, Sokota also served as the Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer for AboveNet.  Prior to that, Rob worked for Metromedia International Telecommunications where he helped found and develop telecommunications ventures in foreign countries. Earlier in his career Sokoto also worked as an associate with the law firm Steptoe and Johnson.

Learn more about what we’re up to below:

INCOMPAS Angie Kronenberg (I-AK) Question: Tell us a little bit about ZenFi Networks; give us the background of the company and how it’s evolved since its inception?

ZenFi Networks Rob Sokota (ZN-RS) Answer: So ZenFi Networks was formed in 2014 by Ray LaChance (Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer), and some of his partners who had previously worked together with a company which was more of a traditional fiber provider here in the New York City area. In 2014 they started a new firm called ZenFi Networks with a much different focus from their previous company; a business much more focused on the mobile infrastructure area. I, at that point, was working at Cross River Fiber. But in 2018, the two companies merged, and I think it’s gone very well for both of us. I think the combination of the ZenFi Networks mobile customer focus, together with the Cross River network experience in New Jersey has really been one of these mergers where, you know, one plus one equals three.

And then to talk a little bit about ZenFi Networks itself, it’s focused on the mobile infrastructure area, and deployment of small cells. Small cells are becoming a larger part of the mobile business and ZenFi Networks serves the mobile providers in three key ways. The first is providing sighting solutions. What that means is providing a space for mobile providers to put a mobile radio, if that’s a utility pole, a light pole or, in the future we think is going to be on street furniture, such as the Link NYC kiosks. Secondly, we have a fiber network, where we connect that radio back to a network aggregation point where the carriers can have a baseband processing. The third leg would be providing them network edge colocation where they can do baseband processing.

I-AK Q: You’re really deploying a unique business model to the communities. How are you distinguishing yourself in the marketplace as compared to what some of the other broadband providers are doing? 

ZN-RS A: So when I was at AboveNet, we had sort of a traditional fiber network model; we were focused on putting very high count fiber cables in the ground, to provide services to our customers. When it came to ZenFi Networks, I literally thought it was going to be sort of the same thing but I very quickly learned that it was very different. They had their main focus on providing these very high count cables between data centers, between high-end enterprise locations, mostly for customers with significant bandwidth needs, financial service customers, technology customers. ZenFi Networks has a very different focus because instead of focusing on those sort of high bandwidth customers, we’re focused on the small cell market, and being able to provide fiber in a much more densely urban environment so that instead of dropping a pair of fiber every couple of miles, we might be dropping a pair of fiber, maybe every block in New York City, for example.

I-AK Q: The densification of the fiber network is something that we talk a lot about at INCOMPAS, especially as we see the need for small cells and 5G deployments. The access to the rights of way obviously are important in any network build, but in particular for the kind of network build that you’re building. So as you’re looking at those issues, tell us a little bit about how you all are dealing with those rights of way issues, the kinds of barriers you might face, and what it is that policymakers need to hear from companies like yours?

ZF-RS A: So I think over the years, it’s changed considerably. So in the wake of the 1996 Telecom Act, the name of the game for the new alternative providers, was going out and getting rights of way to be able to lay our fiber networks, and expanding our reach to be able to reach new customer locations, and that was the battle for many years.  That varies by region, some of the states took a very centralized approach to rights of way where they said, “if you register with the State Public Utility Commission, you’re a utility in the state and that gives you the right to use the public rights of way wherever in the state.”  In those states there was definitely a lot less interaction with local authorities.

Other states took a different tact; they gave local authorities a lot of authority in terms of what they could and couldn’t do. In New Jersey, where Cross River Fiber was started, was one of those states where state law essentially says that “if you use the public right of way with your fiber network, you have to get an agreement for every single local government in which your network is located” Well, New Jersey has over 500 local governments. So you can imagine in a situation like that, that’s a very time intensive process, gathering these local approvals and making sure that you have them all lined up for an opportunity. I think 250 different approvals from these local governments is a lot of work to do, but as I said for the most part, the issues related to fiber network rights of way have been resolved. The big change that I think has occurred in the last couple of years- is that the game has changed, it’s not just about building fiber networks. It’s about installing small cells, and those cells can go on existing utility poles, existing light poles or in many instances where the existing infrastructure isn’t sufficient or has already got equipment that’s incompatible with a small cell by putting new utility poles and new light poles.  That doesn’t go over very well with municipalities; they’re not interested in having you create more visual clutter in their municipality. Many of them don’t like the aesthetics, don’t like the way your pole looks, they don’t like the way the small cell equipment looks. In many of them, they have health safety concerns as well. The FCC has ruled that it’s not really the jurisdiction of a local government to make a determination, but I can tell you it comes up all the time anyway.

I-AK Q: Talk a little bit about the public, private partnerships and initiatives that ZenFi Networks is working on. Can you share with us some examples of what you’re doing in this area?

ZF- RS A: I think the biggest example for us is a deal we recently entered into with City Bridge. City Bridge is the operator of the Link NYC Kiosk Network here in New York City.

For those not familiar with the Link NYC Kiosk Network, it was a very innovative forward looking initiative started in New York City, almost a decade ago to replace the existing phone system, with a series of kiosks. The kiosks would provide free telephone calls, they had a tablet, in which you could access certain city information. It had a USB port where people could charge their phones for free, and most importantly it provided free public WiFi. To support the installation, and operation of the kiosks, they also had these very large digital advertising screens, which were used by City Bridge to display ads for its customers, in a manner that’s a lot more efficient than using sort of old billboards.  The screens could also be used for public service announcements, they served multiple purposes.  In many ways the Link NYC Kiosk Initiative I think was a great great success.

Since it launched in 2016, they had nearly 10 million people sign up for public WiFi. 25 million free phone calls were made. You had thousands of people searching for social services issues, most frequently was housing and food assistance so the kiosks were doing a very good job serving multiple individuals across the city. They also provided critical information to the public, most notably over the last year during the pandemic. Link NYC ran real time updates in multiple languages, about COVID-19 resources, alerts, guidelines, vaccine availability, and all of this came at no cost to the residents of New York City. In fact, City Bridge paid a franchise fee to New York City, simply to operate. So in many ways, I think it was a great success from a public service perspective.

I-AK Q: Talk a little bit about the partnering and business opportunities that’s available for those in our audience, to work with ZenFi Networks in the New York/New Jersey area?

ZF- RS A: As I said, we are operating a large mobile infrastructure business which is starting a potential transition into virtual infrastructure at the same time. So, in addition to the need for partners to work with us with respect to the deployment of fiber networks, installation of small cells; we’re now also looking at talking to partners for new types of equipment we use so that we can deploy our own radios out there. So ZenFi Networks is always looking for new and innovative partners to work alongside as we go out and meet our goals

To listen to the complete Webinar, click here.

To learn more about ZenFi Networks, click here.