A second-generation executive in his family business, Michael Hain has climbed more poles and run more cable and fiber than many of his peers. But the GM/CTO of Lewistown, Pa.-based Nittany Media, whose track record places him well ahead of the curve on technology deployments, doesn’t hesitate when asked what he believes is his greatest industry legacy. “We brought the Internet to a very rural community, and we did it early—by ’97—and we did it as community service,” he says.
Nittany’s provision of T1 level broadband access in kindergarten classrooms in a rural school district was particularly significant, Hain says, because “these kids had not only Internet, but broadband their entire school career… way before big cities like Philadelphia.”
The deployment also ushered in a business priority to wire local schools, community centers and homes as Nittany continues its honor its pledge to bring “fiber to the farmer.” Hain and the Nittany team have helped schools and entire districts create data centers, pare down server needs, eliminate overall network costs and not only keep step with, but often exceed peers in urban locales.
Also high on his list of accomplishments was Hain’s leadership in connecting US troops deployed overseas to “the home and pop culture they protect and enable,” he says, a feat whose genesis dates back to 1993 when he discovered digital video provided by a CD on an IBM PC and realized cable needed to provide 300kbps to each consumer device, not just each customer.
“When our local high school sports coverage was needed by parents deployed to the Gulf War, we were able to provide a global stream. Our active troops were able to see their own kids play local high school football from half way around the globe. One of the best uses of technology,” Hain says. “Later, we assisted some of our deployed families to set up and utilize ‘Sling Box’ [type] technology in their homes.”
“There is a quote that I attribute to my father: ‘When you do the right things for the right reasons, good things happen.’ By installing a complimentary community WAN for the school district, we were able to develop the skills and technologies that enabled our successful DOCSIS deployment three years later. We’re 10Gb now throughout the school district, with Gigabit eRated Internet customers.”
Cable runs deep in the Hain family. “When the other kids were going down to the river fishing, my dad and I were going up the mountain with an inch and a quarter mast with an antenna, and we were fishing too—fishing for a distant signal,” he says.
And it’s his unwavering commitment to the communities Nittany serves that makes Hain an ambassador for net neutrality and other practices that benefit independent operators. On his docket are a push for greater transparency and parity in pricing, a move to unbundle programming, and the elimination of the practice where high-cost programming is “forced” onto basic cable.
As Hain stated as part of ACA comments filed to the FCC, “To be called a gatekeeper to justify regulation, in my view, is completely disrespectful.” He further explains to Cablefax, “My feeling is we are enablers. If it weren’t for us, pushing ahead and using economies of scale and developing standards such as DOCSIS, we’d still be in the kilobit age, not the megabit age. We brought the Internet to our communities and our schools and we keep them connected with the world.”
As a technology innovator, Hain has seen the landscape shift dramatically through the years, landing him, as he says, “in the thick of the thick” of retransmission agreements, FCC rulings and the like. The Hain family also operates a couple of radio stations and a TV broadcast station, providing him a window to multiple sides of some of today’s issues.
“The challenge is not the technology. Technology is easy,” he says. “The things that are difficult are the rights of way, franchise agreements, for TV Everywhere getting the distribution rights. We’re caught in the middle of all that, and it makes it hard to innovate, but that’s what we do. Being a smaller operator, that’s a challenge we have.”
To help stay on top of challenges, Hain maintains a long-term view of tech innovations and isn’t afraid to espouse an unfashionable opinion. “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and may be wrong on this, but from my assessment DOCSIS 3.1 is an interim technology,” he says. “The new studio standard for video is 120 frames per second at 12 bits per pixel, then when we move to 4K we’re looking at calculations somewhere close to 160 gigabits per second, uncompressed. DOCSIS 3.1 will get us five years maybe. We need direct to switched fiber.”