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Q&A: i3 Broadband CEO talks increased internet demand, material shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic

i3 Broadband installing fiber cable internet in St. Charles County, Mo. in December.

EAST PEORIA — The internet has taken on an even larger role in work and play alike during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tim Shelley chats with Paul Cronin, CEO of East Peoria-based i3 Broadband, about how the pandemic is impacting business. The provider serves the Peoria, Champaign, Jacksonville, and St. Charles County, Mo. regions in the Midwest, as well as part of Rhode Island.

Listen to this interview here.

TIM SHELLEY: The pandemic has really brought to light the importance of the internet in our lives, whether it’s, you know, kids doing schooling remotely, people working remotely. We’ve all been a lot more reliant on the internet, even for our entertainment, you know, a lot more Netflix and Hulu at home than maybe we did in the past. So what’s that been like for you, as a provider of all that extra demand?

PAUL CRONIN: Sure. I mean, certainly the internet, since its inception has been important to our economy in other facets of life. But I think the the whole pandemic, just accentuated that and just further brought it to light.

And, in fact, what we’re seeing now is, you know, demand and usage go up, because now you’ve got both, in many cases, both mom and dad, or both parents, in the home working from home, you’ve got the children doing their schooling from home. So the consumption is just really going through the roof and the dependency on on broadband to get the education work and every other environment done. So it’s, it really has, you know, as I said, accentuated the importance of broadband in terms of a driver of education and driver of business.

TIM SHELLEY: So how do you handle all that extra capacity? Does that put a load on your ability to deliver at all? Or do you have to make adjustments, extra bandwidth, things like that?

PAUL CRONIN: Well, thankfully, our company is building fiber optics right to the home. And so the capacity is not an issue. I mean, we’re offering speeds of one gig symmetrical, one gig up, one gig down, which is not common in the marketplace today with the incumbent providers.

And you know, the new networks we’re building are ten gig capable up and down. So we have not seen the strain on our network. But we have heard loud and clear from our consumers that they appreciate the capacity. And, you know, so many devices are connected in the home, as you know, whether it’s your little phone, device, your tablets and go down the list. I mean, some people have 100 devices connected in their home. So we have not seen the strain on our networks, because again, it’s fiber directly into the home.

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i3 Broadband CEO Paul Cronin holds a pair of ceremonial scissors with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson at a ribbon cutting for the company’s opening in St. Charles County, Mo. i3 Broadband/Facebook

TIM SHELLEY: What’s it take to run a fiber optic network like that? You’re running your own fiber optic cable, right?

PAUL CRONIN: That’s correct. We’re constructing and building our own network. And there’s a long process from start to finish in terms of the planning and coordination. Getting the right permits and rights of way. Most of our plant, with the exception of the Northeast, is underground.

Materials ordering. And you know, it’s another issue we’ll probably talk about in terms of the impact on supply chain materials and what that’s meant for our construction. But, again, it’s a very detailed process that, you know, we’ve got down pat. We’re just under 100 communities at this point, and growing quickly. We’ll add another just under 20 more communities this year. So we’ve got a good plan and kind of rhythm to our construction at this point.

TIM SHELLEY: How do you decide what kind of areas or markets are viable for fiber optics?

PAUL CRONIN: It’s a very thoughtful due diligence that we do to make sure that the fiber that we build will get well-received by the community and get folks to sign up.

And so we look at a number of factors, we look at, you know, number of homes in the community, because it costs a lot to get fiber there. And so certainly, we want to make sure that is the home base there to support the business, but it really ranges. I mean, we are not trying to be exclusionary in terms of the right or the wrong demographics. I think if the population is there, and the demand is there, and I think you probably know from your own experience that broadband is vital to all pieces of the population and cuts across all demographics. And so we’ve got a business plan to serve all the different parts of the community.

TIM SHELLEY: You mentioned materials being an issue. When we hear about all those supply chain things in the news, how is that affecting you and i3?

PAUL CRONIN: We have to be more thoughtful in our planning and get out in front of things earlier than we historically have. So to the extent that we’ve got construction plans, 18, 24 months out that, historically, you wouldn’t have to worry about order cycles for fiber, and conduit and all the other things. It’s just required us to, again, be a little bit more thoughtful get those orders in earlier.

I mean, depending on the materials, you know, it could take nine months to a year backlog in some situations. We’ve gotten out in front of that; we’ve got materials in our yards, ready to go for ’22 construction plans. So it has not slowed us down. But it has required us to again, be more aggressive and a little bit earlier on a reporting cycle.

TIM SHELLEY: So you’ve got to be a lot more thoughtful about, ‘I’ve got this project coming up in eight months, and I need to get this stuff ready for it now.’

PAUL CRONIN: Exactly. And you just got to be willing to sit on some more inventory. Probably the just in time delivery method’s not going to work in this environment right now.

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