Joe Hickey

As an end-to-end communications systems integrator with a variety of wireless and broadband solutions, our mission is to contribute to the creation of inclusive, safe, and prosperous communities. We define community as those we collaborate with to build a better-connected world. Our vision is to be the premier provider of digital infrastructure to our communities. Customers depend on ROCK Networks to provide industry-leading devices and services, nimble solutions, seamless integration, and best-in-class technical support. Our areas of communications expertise are Broadband, Wireless, Satellite and Rural Broadband Networks; Two-Way Radios and Rugged Devices; Next Generation 9-1-1; Wi-Fi solutions; IoT and Cloud; Predictive Analytics and Disaster Recovery; and Mobility Products and Services.

Tell us about yourself?

I have always known I wanted to lead my own organization. I always had big ideas and, upon joining Northern Telecom, worked to become a top leader in the company. The vision of being the CEO of Nortel did not materialize due to the downfall of Nortel. I did become CEO of several VC-funded start-ups, including TeraBlaze and TenXc Wireless. Those were both exciting roles from a business perspective but did not offer the opportunity to mould something from the very beginning. In 2016, I was the VP of Sales and Marketing for the radio equipment supplier Christie Walther Communications when the company was acquired by another firm. I took this opportunity to focus full-time on ROCK Networks, a side company I founded in my living room in 2007. In under a year, I secured a major contract to supply communications equipment to the federal government. Using the profits from that deal and a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada, ROCK Networks acquired Nova Scotia-based two-way radio supplier Nova Communications in a multimillion-dollar deal in May 2017. The company has since grown from a two-way radio supplier to a company that now competes with large telcos on major broadband projects.

If you could go back in time a year or two, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Going back two years ago, I would have bet on the same investment to ramp the business on the technical engineering and marketing side for rural broadband. The new advice that I would have given myself was to build in a LOT MORE BUFFER to the approval cycle with governments on the funding and also to look more closely into the future impacts that COVID-19 supply chain issues would create. The supply chain became a big issue for the company, which we have had to manage through the existing business and plan new strategies on the rural broadband side.

What problem does your business solve?

ROCK Networks helps bridge gaps in communications with innovative, future-proof communication solutions. We help organizations, communities, and individuals communicate. Our solutions are quite broad. We help construction workers communicate via two-way radio in loud, dusty, and sometimes unpredictable environments in order to remain safe and productive on the job. We help dispatchers and emergency communications providers adapt to evolving new Next-Generation 9-1-1 standards so they can maintain the highest level of service to their communities through advances in technology. We provide backup solutions to keep organizations operational during power or network outages. Most importantly, we aim to bridge the digital divide in Canada by delivering reliable, affordable, high-speed internet to rural, remote, and Indigenous communities that large telcos have ignored for decades.

What is the inspiration behind your business?

Drawing up the 40 years of experience that ROCK and Nova built in the communications space in Canada, it was my vision to expand the company from a leading two-way radio supplier to an innovator in the telecommunications industry. This vision began to take shape in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic started. As lockdowns forced many to begin working or attending school from home and the use of telemedicine grew. The 89.5 per cent of Canadians with access to high-speed internet easily adapted to this new reality. However, only 53 per cent of Canadians in rural communities have access to the internet that meets the minimum speed requirements laid out by the CTRC. Unable to justify a business case for building networks in rural areas, large telcos had ignored rural communities up to this point. The dominant telecommunications model was not working, and I believed a new model could help bridge the digital divide between urban and rural Canada. Our community broadband network model not only connects rural Canadians to the internet but also increases consumer choice and has economic benefits for municipalities whose populations have been dwindling for years.

What is your magic sauce?

ROCK Networks’ strategy of building community broadband networks as true open-access networks in Canada has the potential to upset the value chain of the Canadian telecom marketplace. The current model of providing service to rural Canada for the past 50 years has failed to deliver the required services for all Canadians. The false view that there is no business case for rural high-speed internet comes from assessing the situation through a publicly traded telco lens of shareholder value. The lens we view the problem through is a stakeholder one which all citizens are entitled to equitable services. Why does a government build a road to a small community? Is it because there is a business case for this? No, it is because they want to connect all citizens. The internet is the new digital highway, and if we do not have high-speed internet in rural Canada, these communities cannot participate in the global economy and will eventually wither and die. ROCK Networks’ strategy is to put in place long-lived assets-based fibre networks so that there is a business case for the long-term benefit of the community. This business case is not based on a telco one to three-year payback but an eight to 12-year payback on a 30 to 50-year asset. It is a great business case for communities and long-term investors. What makes ROCK an industry leader is that we are out front on this challenge to change the industry structure and are working at all levels of government with a laser focus on the local municipalities at the centre of our plan. It is not just about high-speed internet; it is about creating sustainable communities.

What is the plan for the next 5 years? What do you want to achieve?

The federal government is committed to 100 per cent of Canadians being connected to a broadband 50/10 Mbps connection by 2030, so significant investments in this space will continue. ROCK Networks is ideally poised to capitalize on this market growth. Our plans include further expansion of the rural broadband network footprint and the launch of new broadband satellite initiatives to connect both communities and individuals. This includes expansion across Canada and potential expansion into the US market.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

With the announcement of the Ontario ICON Program and the Federal Universal Broadband Funds in the fall of 2020, we invested in engineering and design capabilities in the business. This resulted in over $250M of submissions to the Federal UBF program in March 2021. To date, we have received awards of nearly $140M in grants. We are in the final stages of a large project in Northern Ontario (H&M COFI), which the Federal and Provincial Governments announced on August 8, 2021, with up to $91M in grant funding. The biggest challenge was finding technical resources, the right tools for the front-end high-level design for the network, and a financial analyst that could put together a 30-year overview of a significant project. I used LinkedIn Job Postings and found the right financial analyst and key technical resource, and we began the work to build the business plan. We also worked on the business development side to engage with communities in Northern Ontario, Newfoundland, and Labrador to educate them on the benefits of broadband for their communities. The final challenge was having financial backers for the project. I led this activity as the CEO to engage with private equity firms and get them to provide support for our submissions. This culminated in our ability to submit the projects to ISED for approval. Recognizing that Canada’s rugged landscape renders the construction of fibre infrastructure impossible in some remote communities, we had to develop new ways to deliver reliable, high-speed internet access to these areas. To overcome this challenge, we were the first company in Canada to partner with OneWeb, a world leader in satellite connectivity.

How can people get involved?

For more information on our communications solutions, please visit www.rocknetworks.com or call 1-877-721-7070.