Q&A WITH MATT LARSEN – CEO OF VISTABEAM
The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic impacted society on a global scale. Our daily lives and routines were forever changed, due to the mandatory government lockdowns put in place to help stop the spread of the virus. As a result, small and large companies across the United States, scrambled to implement virtual workstations for their employees, in an effort to remain viable. Technology, more than ever, became an indispensable requirement for the Nation.
To help alleviate the devastating economic impact of the Pandemic, the Federal Government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress on March 27, 2020.
The states of Nebraska and Wyoming, partnered with Vistabeam to use their CARES ACT grant funds to expand fixed wireless internet coverage and service to rural communities in desperate need.
Matt Larsen, CEO of Vistabeam provides an insider’s expert view of how the project was successfully implemented in this informative Q&A.
Q1: The 2020 Pandemic was a game-changer for the industry, in particular, internet providers. As CEO of Vistabeam, what key changes did you make internally, in order to respond to the Pandemic?
A1: The first thing we did was to institute safe processes for interacting with customers at their houses and to shift office employees to remote working conditions. Broadband was essential during the early stages of the pandemic, so we had to keep the network running and add capacity to meet the demand. Fortunately, we added a lot of backbone and last mile capacity just before the pandemic and we were able to easily meet the needs of our existing customers and a big surge of new customers looking to upgrade to a better connection.
Q2: Vistabeam was selected as the partner to lead the broadband expansion plan for the States of Nebraska and Wyoming. How significant was this partnership for your organization?
A2: Our participation in the CARES Act funded broadband expansion programs in Nebraska and Wyoming enabled us to upgrade nearly all of our network facilities in both states. Vistabeam had a three-year plan to upgrade existing network and extend our coverage into nearby unserved areas. That plan was the basis for our CARES Act work, but we accelerated the timelines to get three years of work done in a few months and it took a steady, sustained effort by our dedicated Infrastructure Team to get it done.
Q3: What were some key weaknesses within the infrastructure of these communities that you immediately identified as priorities?
A3: Many of the areas that we expanded into were unserved or had poor broadband options that were unable to meet the needs for home schooling or remote work. Many had no middle-mile network options or tower facilities, so we had to build our own backhaul and towers to get to the customers.
Q4: What was the biggest challenge that you and your team faced during the expansion project?
A4: Inconsistent work by outside contractors put a lot of pressure on our team. This caused several delays and a lot of wasted time having to do the work ourselves. However, our team added new skills and capabilities to overcome this challenge and help us become more self- sufficient.
Q5: Did you experience any supply shortage during the project?
A5: Several items were in short supply, so we had to plan around shortages and longer timelines. Several of our vendors stepped up to help us get the equipment we needed, and we added a new facility with more storage and staging capacity to accommodate the huge influx of inventory.
Q6: How did the community and customers react to receiving the service?
A6: Since the pandemic started, we have been receiving 5 star reviews for our service on a daily basis. Our team has done an outstanding job taking care of our customers and rolling out free service upgrades as we add capacity.
Q7: What kept your team motivated throughout the process?
A7: Our team takes a lot of pride is delivering a quality service, and that drives them. They are all on our network and can see how important the work they do is for them and their families. The CARES Act projects also gave us milestones and deadlines that helped focus our efforts during the process.
Q8: Please share 2 key ‘Lessons Learned’ from this experience.
A8: Lesson 1: Build up your own capabilities and reduce dependency on outside entities. This made our network and team more resilient and capable of handling bigger challenges. Lesson 2: Be ready to answer when opportunity knocks. We had three years of work planned out and ready to go, so when the Cares Act broadband programs were announced we already had our roadmap and execution strategy in place.
Q9: Has this experience led you to enact internal protocols for handling emergency events and preparedness?
A9: We have added a safety officer and established protocols for safe work policies along with monthly safety meetings and regular training.
Q10: If you had to do it all over again, from an expert’s point of view, what would you do differently?
A10: We would have reduced our dependency on outside contractors and planned to do more of the work with our own staff. There are always a few things that you would do differently, but for the most part I think we did an outstanding job of executing on the projects.
Q11: What would you like to say to the customers and the people of Nebraska and Wyoming who’s lives you’ve touched during the past year?
A11: All of us at Vistabeam are thankful for the opportunity to serve the great people in Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. We will do everything we can to earn your business, treat you with respect and deliver a quality broadband service for you.
Q12: Is there more ahead for Vistabeam in terms of future expansion within the states of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming?
A12: We are always looking to expand into areas that are unserved, but we are also planning to bring competition to new areas where we can leverage our existing infrastructure and systems to provide an extraordinary broadband experience.
Q13: What advice do you have for other industry leaders who are facing hardship and challenges transitioning from the Pandemic to now?
A13: Take care of your team. We had a “grant hangover” this spring after a very hectic work schedule for several months and team members that were getting burned out. It took some time to adjust back to a normal pace of work and get our team some rest, but we are in a great position now. I make sure to show my appreciation for the hard work that went into our broadband projects and celebrate their accomplishments.
Q14: Have you changed as a leader as a result of the Pandemic?
A14: Vistabeam added a lot of employees and maintained consistent steady growth during the Pandemic, and that led me to delegate more responsibilities to team members and trust in their judgement. It helps to have a great Leadership Team and dedicated employees.
Q15: Do you have a message for your company and your team?
A15: I am very proud of the work our team did during the pandemic and that is reflected in the growth of our company, the high degree of customer satisfaction and our ability to execute on challenging projects like the CARES Act program. They are extraordinary and I have nothing but appreciation and respect for them.
Vistabeam, your trusted broadband internet service provider for Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, will introduce a slight price increase to service plans beginning October 1, 2021. This is only the second increase in 17 years for the company, as it looks to broaden its footprint within the rural parts of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The increase also reflects our efforts to bring expanded coverage, and network capability upgrades to our customers. Vistabeam remains one of the most affordable and dependable service providers to the community, offering high speed, unlimited data, and no contract plans.
During the 2020 Pandemic, Vistabeam was instrumental in deploying an unprecedented emergency action plan, that provided internet service to low-income or at-risk customers as they adjusted to the new home-based learning, and work models brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown. Vistabeam’s customer service team will be available to answer questions and provide support during the transition.
Help for Those in Need:
Resources are available to assist qualifying low-income households in need of additional support.
Click the link below to access the application form for the temporary federal Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program. This could lower the monthly cost of your internet services by up to $50.00, depending on eligibility: https://vistabeam.com/ebb/
You may also qualify for the ongoing federal Lifeline program. This program lowers the monthly cost of internet service for low-income families by $9.25, depending on eligibility: https://vistabeam.com/lifeline/.
2020 “The Year of the Pandemic” brought a unique set of challenges to Vistabeam and all of the communities in our service area. The school and business shutdowns, health concerns and massive disruption to our lifestyles lead to changes that showed how important broadband is for our education, work and entertainment needs. The increased load on networks was a challenge for many providers, but Vistabeam was ready for the demand and responded with a massive surge of construction to increase capacity and coverage of our service areas in Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado.
We were very fortunate to have great partners to work with. The States of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming worked with us to utilize grant funds from State Programs and the Federal CARES Act to accelerate our network upgrades and expand into several new areas where broadband was desperately needed. A strong and steady push throughout the year put us two years ahead of schedule on our planned network upgrades and expansions and speeds up to 100MB are now available in a large portion of the Vistabeam service area. Vistabeam worked with the City of Scottsbluff to purchase a new infrastructure facility, purchase upgraded equipment, and add ten new full-time positions. This improved our construction capacity and the capabilities of our teams to respond to customer needs. Vistabeam is also a Microsoft AirBand partner and this partnership focused on improving digital training skills, marketing our services to more people, and establishing the Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Program services for low-income or at-risk customers.
Here is a state-by-state breakdown of Vistabeam’s major accomplishments in 2020:
- Additional capacity turned on in Akron and at Denver NOC
- CBRS and Access Point upgrades in Sterling, Washington and Yuma Counties
- Completion of Colorado Broadband Fund grant in Jackson County
- New backbone upgrades to Fleming and Fort Morgan
- New towers secured in Fort Morgan and Brush for 2021 Upgrades
- New towers at brought online at Highlands Road, Harrisburg South, Potter and the Scottsbluff
Soccer Field Water Tank
- CARES Act Broadband projects completed in Banner, Chase, Cheyenne, Deuel, Garden, Kimball, Morrill, Perkins and Scotts Bluff Counties including upgraded microwave backhauls and a wide- scale deployment of new Non-Line of Sight (NLOS) access points using CBRS spectrum that can serve more customers than previous systems
- Fiber backhaul upgrades to improve capacity in Henry, Morrill and Scottsbluff areas
- Middle mile fiber project completed between Torrington and Morrill, NE adding massive backbone capacity into Goshen County
- Coverage extended to Centennial and Wild Horse Ranch areas in Albany County
- CARES Act Broadband projects completed in Centennial, Wild Horse Ranch and other areas around Albany County, Hartville and Guernsey in Platte County, Hawk Springs in Goshen County
- Backbone upgrades in Lusk, Glenrock, Lingle and Laramie
- New towers in place in rural Niobrara County, northern Goshen County and southern Converse County for 2021 backbone and access points upgrades
How do you follow a year like 2020? With a continued strong effort to upgrade and expand quality broadband service to even more people. All the work done in 2020 laid a great foundation for success in 2021 as we work to enable 100MB speeds to all of our customers, expand into new service areas in Wyoming and Northern Colorado, and start deploying hybrid fiber and wireless networks in towns all over our service area. The team at Vistabeam is committed to bringing extraordinary connections to all of our customers in 2021!
The Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED) awarded a portion of the Remote Access Rural Broadband Grant to Vistabeam in August.
Forty million dollars in the CARES Act Federal Funding was committed to this grant program, and applications were due at the end of July. Vistabeam made nine applications and all were awarded. An aggressive work plan was put together to get all of the updates completed over a four-month timeline.
“We have added eight full-time jobs since the grants were applied for and lined up multiple contractors to help us with the construction,” said Matt Larsen, CEO of Vistabeam. “There are supply chain issues that may ultimately slow our progress, but I have been amazed at how much progress our team has made in such a short period of time.”
The counties to benefit from the grant will be Banner, Chase, Cheyenne, Deuel, Garden, Kimball, Perkins, and Scotts Bluff. The upgrades will deliver up to 100Mbps downloads speeds and will work through trees, where before the company relied on line-of-sight to provide a connection.
Vistabeam had existing infrastructure in these counties and had a three year tplan to upgrade these portions of the network. The terms of the grant require the work to be completed by the end of 2020.
“The deadline has been a huge challenge for us, but we have stepped up to add more capacity. Our goal is to make sure that 25/3 is the minimal package that we will make available, and the speeds will go up from there,” Larsen said.
Upgrades to 20 existing sites and three new tower locations are in progress, with some sites already completed.
Each site will be able to deliver up to 100Mbps download speeds to residents and will have several hours of backup battery capacity. In the event of a power outage, there will be multiple ways to get to the Internet on through other towers and fiber connections on the Vistabeam network.
The Broadband program was one of four grants designed and administered by the Nebraska DED this year to support the state’s economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The broadband grant opportunity was made possible by the federal CARES Act funding, including $1.08 billion of Coronavirus Relief funds allocated to the State of Nebraska and announced by DED last spring. The grants target areas of the state where high-speed internet service is nonexistent or subpar based on the FCC standard of 25/3 Mbps download/upload speeds.