An interview with ZenFi Networks’ Walter Cannon, VP of Business Development, Thomas Schemly, Director of Carrier Sales and Melissa A. Stanislaw, Director of Marketing Strategy & Sales Enablement

Editor’s Note: At ITW last month, I had the pleasure to meet with ZenFi Networks, a regional fiber provider serving New York and New Jersey.  I spoke with three of ZenFi’s executives -- Walter Cannon, VP of Business Development; Thomas Schemly, Director of Carrier Sales; and Melissa A. Stanislaw, Director of Marketing Strategy & Sales Enablement.  They explained how their company has been successful in a market that offers some unique challenges.

ZenFi Networks is disrupting the connectivity landscape of the New York and New Jersey metro region by building network infrastructure designed with greater capacity in mind and providing cutting-edge technology and solutions for wireless enablement.  The company’s fiber optic network provides a critical link between the submarine cable landing stations along the New Jersey coast and the buildings in one of the single most important geographic points of the entire global telecommunications network – Manhattan.  For this reason, ZenFi Networks represents a critically important piece of the global infrastructure. 

Mr. Cannon, Ms. Stanislaw and Mr. Schemly: “ZenFi Networks evolution really started as a construction company in the 1940s (Hugh O’Kane Electric). That company grew and become the go-to telecom construction firm in New York City. In the early 2000s ZenFi Networks’ current CEO, Ray LaChance, teamed up with the O’Kane family to build a carrier neutral fiber network under a company called Lexent Metro Connect (sold to what is now Crown Castle, in 2010). After that sale, the team stuck together doing project management and engineering work for many of the HFTs and first-generation neutral host companies like NextG and Mobilitie.   We really learned a lot about how wireless and wireline networks were built and what everybody was doing right and what everybody was doing wrong. After the sale of Lexent we had a 3-year non-compete. During that time, we sat back and said, “What have we learned?”  What we learned was that there were different types of networks out there being built.  One was purpose-built for mobile, another was purpose-built for enterprise/data center connectivity.  These are totally different in terms of construction and the ability to access your cable.  If you’re not careful you can have a lot of stranded fiber that adds to your costs. 

We began to think about a new type of network – one that was purpose built to support the growth of wireless applications in a metropolitan area like NYC.  That called for high-accessibility with integrated aggregation points for fiber conservation and shared space and power. So the ZenFi network was built, from the beginning, to service the expansion of mobile.  We saw that there were small cells going up all over the place.  There was a lot of public Wi-Fi starting to happen.  And all this was being fed by some type of fiber.  We wanted to build something that could support it but would cut down our costs at the same time.  So we developed a new cable design that we thought we could use to build the network we always wanted to build – a network of neighborhood networks – one designed and purpose built to solve a different problem – wireless densification.

The new cable design that we used really meant the difference in terms of compatibility and accessibility between our network and the legacy networks that are out there.  The legacy networks were built to solve a different problem.  We purpose-built our network to solve for the challenge of the lack of densification needed for the mobile world.  But the fiber is just one important piece of solving the overall problem. ZenFi Networks has created a fully integrated network blending space, power and connectivity.

In 2018, we started thinking about how we could expand the mobile network into New Jersey, and at the same time leverage our NYC network to support other enterprise applications. At the same time, Cross River Fiber was thinking about how to evolve their carrier grade network to support mobile. The two management teams came together with a thesis: spread the ZenFi Networks DNA across the Cross River network and apply what we learned in NYC to the NJ metro market. Take Cross River’s success in wholesale and enterprise and apply that sales team and product knowledge to New York. The result would be a best in class communications infrastructure network purpose built to support mobile, and backwards compatible to support wholesale and enterprise applications. With our merger with Cross River Fiber in 2018, we have nearly 800 route-miles of fiber optic cable, with 137 on-net buildings and 45 of the most strategic colocation facilities in the New York metro region.  The merging of the two networks was complimentary -- we knew that the connection between colocation facilities to support Internet and enterprise traffic had the potential to be a major revenue stream and service a need in our market.  That includes the connection to the NJFX landing station and colocation campus that we picked up in the Cross River merger that took place last year.  We are now selling to the major carriers, including some European carriers, for connectivity between the NJFX submarine cable landing station and data center campus and the other data centers in the region.  NJFX is starting to heat up a lot, especially with all the content that is coming in there. 

We’re seeing a need for connectivity all the way out to most of the cable landing stations.  Some of those are dying off and some are picking up.  We get a significant number of requests for connectivity to the cable stations in New Jersey, as well as the ones on Long Island.  But we’re pretty conservative as a company.  A project has to be cost justified for us to take it on.  We’ve had, for example, projects where a customer has to go from Canada to NJFX, and we’re a piece of it.  We can be a small piece or we can be the most important piece.  Even though our piece may be the shortest, it is a very important piece because of how strategic our geographic footprint is.

Over the next 12-18 months we’ll continue to build out the network and believe we’ll continue to become the go-to provider for underlying wireless infrastructure across the region. We see our merger thesis playing out in real time and are excited about the footprint we’re able to sell and the expansion opportunities that come along with being at the forefront of mobile.  It’s an exciting time to be a part of ZenFi Networks and an exciting time in our industry.”

Editor’s Note: The word “disruptive” came up frequently at ITW as many companies look to adapt to the changing realities of the global telecom industry.  ZenFi Networks is particularly interesting in that the predecessors of the company had a long history working in a telecom environment that was much more predictable than it is today.  ZenFi’s management, however, identified a need that was not being met by others and developed a unique solution to meet that need.  SubCableWorld believes that company’s like ZenFi Networks are important to highlight as an example of the benefits that disruptive thinking can bring to the industry.