Five Questions With: Levi C. Maaia

"WHO, IF ANYONE, has the right to control the flow of data packets on the Internet? It is a matter of survival for many small cable operators," said Full Channel Vice President Levi Maaia. /

Levi C. Maaia is vice president of Full Channel TV Inc., a family-owned cable TV and broadband provider in the East Bay. Maaia talked with Providence Business News recently about joining a business at a young age, the future of the cable industry and his studies on the West Coast.

PBN: You’re only 28. How did you wind up becoming an executive of a cable company at such a young age?
In August 2004, my grandfather, John Donofrio, the founder, president and CEO of Full Channel, died suddenly at age 78. I was a graduate student at Emerson College and living in Boston at the time. My mother Linda, my father Bill – who has been the company’s outside legal counsel since its inception – and I quickly organized a plan to step in to take the reins. It was a real challenge given many of the market factors including the recent entry into the Bristol Co., Rhode Island, market by Cox Communications. Fortunately my grandfather had made the initial investment to upgrade the legacy cable plant to a broadband digital system which would support digital TV, high-definition and high-speed Internet services.

PBN: How does an independent cable company survive against behemoths like Cox and Verizon?
For 20 years Full Channel, like all of the original cable companies in Rhode Island, enjoyed market exclusivity in its service area (the towns of Barrington, Warren and Bristol). After being approached by Cox executives in the early 2000s my grandfather John decided not to sell his cable franchise to the media giant. It was this fierce independent spirit that he instilled that is reflected in how Full Channel served and continues to serve the communities.
When I arrived in September 2004, I quickly learned how important a presence the company had in these three towns. Nearly 40 percent of the company’s customers paid their bills in person each month at the front window. They knew the phone and technical representatives by name and even brought them gifts during the holidays.
Now, nearly 30 years after the company began stringing cable TV wires, this special connection and local service that only a small family-owned company could offer, gives Full Channel the edge it needs to hold onto its core subscriber base.

PBN: The magazine CableFAX recently gave Full Channel an Independent Community Service Award for its GreenLink program. What is that?
Our green environmental efforts started out by very simply changing traditional light bulbs to energy-efficient compact florescent lamps. Soon we realized that with so many customers visiting Full Channel each month to pay their bills and ask questions in person, we had a tremendous amount of foot traffic in our reception room and used alkaline remote control batteries piling up. We found a facility where we could send these batteries for renewal and began encouraging customers to bring not just remote batteries but any household dry cell to us for recycling.
Last fall, after committing to buy 100 percent green power for the company’s headquarters in Warren, we were able to reach an agreement with the nonprofit organization People’s Power and Light to offer the GreenLink renewable energy initiative, which allows Full Channel customers to elect to receive their broadband services through the use of wind energy. It isn’t simply a carbon credit or an offset program. GreenLink actually reduces harmful greenhouse emissions and supports sustainable energy projects in New England, by requiring that more power for the grid be generated by wind. GreenLink is a first of its kind program for the nation’s cable industry. I am hopeful that other companies will discover our model and follow suit.

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PBN: You recently attended a cable industry conference in Dallas. What was the most interesting thing you learned there?
A topic that came up in a variety of forums and was a hot-button issue in Dallas is that of network neutrality. Many of my counterparts at independent cable companies across the nation will have a variety of opinions on the matter of controlling traffic on their networks. The basic question behind the issue is: Who, if anyone, has the right to control the flow of data packets on the Internet? It is a matter of survival for many small cable operators. However, it also treads on issues of censorship and content control.
For a small cable company the amount of Internet bandwidth required to serve a given population increases each month as video-rich services, music downloading and other bandwidth-intensive applications become more popular. This, coupled with illegal file-sharing and the huge growth of spam e-mail can quickly choke the data pipes of an Internet service provider. Paradoxically, however, this could lead to regulating or limiting legitimate content providers’ (like YouTube, Facebook or any number of small startups) ability to reach a consumer. In turn that would stifle the very explosive growth of the Internet which has made high-speed Internet service so ubiquitous and profitable. Ultimately that will lead to a pay-for-access model which slows down or shuts out smaller Web sites.
On the flip-side, content providers are looking to make a power-grab of their own. ESPN 360 is an example of how large media stands to take control of the Internet from end-to-end if network neutrality is not embraced. ESPN’s model is to charge ISPs a fee for each and all subscribers, for access to its Web content. ESPN is the first of what will be many that demand payment from ISP’s for access to their content. A model like this could force Internet users into the current cable TV model of paying for content they never watch or use.
I believe it behooves the small-business world to support network neutrality for its own survival, and I have been an open advocate among my peers for support of legislation to keep both Internet service providers and content providers from exploiting access controls for commercial gain.

PBN: When you’re not at Full Channel, you’re also a graduate student and researcher at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. What are you studying?
In 2007, I began work in a graduate program at UC Santa Barbara. I continue telecommuting for strategic work for Full Channel as the company’s vice president while working on research in the field of education at UCSB. Specifically I am interested in how new media technologies can be effectively used in schools. I am currently working on a project to introduce e-portfolios to California schools and community colleges. The hope is that a more robust and media-rich student profile will enable better academic understanding of students and help to evaluate their performance outside of the parameters of traditional standardized testing. •

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