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WISPs Are Helping Communities Stay Connected And Safe During The Crisis… And Beyond

from the buy-local dept

Almost universally, COVID-19 and its associated stay-at-home orders challenged networks with crushes of Internet traffic. Big, medium and small networks; urban, suburban and rural – all experienced a massive shift in use as Americans, locked into a single spot for an indefinite amount of time, depended on the Internet to communicate with friends and families, go to work, learn, get healthcare, and generally ride out the storm.

Fixed wireless providers (a.k.a. WISPs) were no exception in serving the public’s needs during the health safety crisis. These generally small, rural companies use primarily unlicensed spectrum to deliver broadband to nearly 7 million residential and business customers throughout America. Not to be confused with mobile wireless technology, WISPs purchase Internet access, run that to a tower or other vertical structure (such as a grain silo or water tower), then shoot that data wirelessly to fixed receiver-antennas on houses and businesses, connecting a robust, two-way broadband connection.

Not surprisingly, WISPs have been busy during the crisis, seeing an average change of download traffic at peak of 43%; and upload at peak of 70%. To support this, 83% of WISPs upgraded their networks to better manage the new traffic dynamics. Importantly, no WISP buckled, as users changed their favorite apps from streaming and email to “Zoom” teleconferencing and distance learning. During the pandemic, WISPs were also on the frontlines of keeping their communities connected.

Some of this work was recently highlighted by FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in his inaugural Digital Opportunity Equity Recognition (DOER) program. WISPA members Midco, Starry and Triad Wireless were lauded by the Commissioner for demonstrating “a true commitment to serving communities through acts of substance and consequence, big and small, generosity and selflessness both during the pandemic and prior to the recent events that have changed our nation.”

What did they do?

Midco worked with the State of North Dakota and local school districts to deliver free Internet service for families to help kids stay “in” school. Starry created a budget $15 a month package, connecting communities across Boston, New York City, Denver, and Los Angeles with 30 Mbps service and no data caps or long-term contracts. And Triad Wireless launched its “Education Everywhere” program, which for $10 per month brought needy families Internet access in communities across Arizona.

All told 75% of America’s 2,000 plus WISPs helped out with some sort of free access, Wi-Fi hotspots, community connectivity or other broadband deployments to keep their local communities online and safe during the pandemic.

An example of the industry’s other “doers” include companies like in Bellefontaine, OH, which set up a free Wi-Fi location at their local public school so kids in their rural area with limited or no Internet could get assignments via drive-up Wi-Fi. And, BPS Networks, located in Bernie, MO, which deployed nine free Wi-Fi hotspots for local school districts in SE Missouri, as well as a dedicated high-speed link for the local hospital’s COVID-19 pre-screening tents. Or, Portative Technologies in Corydon, IN, which deployed 10 free hotspots in the area’s parks, fire houses, parking lots and elsewhere in their county.

The FCC played an integral part in many of these connectivity efforts, too. More than 100 WISPs applied for and received an innovative, temporary 45 MHz assignment of 5.9 GHz spectrum from the Commission to rapidly boost and promote broadband connectivity. That band was “reserved” for the automotive industry two decades ago, but has gone essentially fallow, seeing little to no use since its inception. Because the spectrum sits adjacent to unlicensed providers in the 5 GHz band, it represented a perfect candidate to quickly increase capacity, alleviating some of “COVID-crunch” on WISP and Wi-Fi networks.

To this end, Amplex in Luckey, OH, used its 5.9 GHz spectrum to increase bandwidth by 50% across its suburban and rural network of 8,000 subscribers, greatly improving capacity not only for the equipment using the new spectrum, but also reducing congestion on the existing spectrum. And Nextlink, based in Hudson Oaks, TX, achieved less network interference by utilizing the 5.9 GHz band, allowing over 2,000 of its subscribers to upgrade their speed plans to higher levels than possible before.

WISPs’ underlying nimbleness made the effects of C-19 less devastating. But it also hints at something more powerful and lasting at work. While the U.S. economy significantly contracted during the crisis, WISP networks grew. Over 80% of WISPs added customers during the pandemic. Interestingly, however, COVID didn’t create this. Rather, it only accelerated the velocity of growth, which for the past several years has been about 15% annually.

How can this happen when other sectors remain flat or experience only meager growth?

First, WISPs often serve broadband-neglected communities in the digital divide – areas that have been left behind by legacy providers because they’re deemed too unprofitable to serve. Perhaps tragically, there’s a huge, nearly 20 million strong untapped market there, representing a lot of room to grow.

Second, though many WISPs provide fiber connectivity, too, the fixed wireless model can be rolled-out almost overnight and at about 15% of the cost of fiber, quickly providing a cost-effective and evolutionary tool to connect to the Internet where it was absent or deficient.

And third, they’re not beholden to a “mother-may-I” regulatory regime, enabling them to innovate without permission, more nimbly extending services to those who need it. It is the exact opposite of monopoly and franchise-driven plays, which work to limit service options, innovation and regulatorily mandated “growth.”

For many individuals in the rural and urban digital divide, WISPs are an essential lifeline, built to evolve, expand and scale to meet the needs of the markets they serve. This flexibility and industry “get ‘er done” ethos have allowed WISPs across America to help their communities stay connected and safe during the crisis. And beyond.

The WISP model helps more and more Americans thrive in good and in challenging times. Policymakers would do well to promote their broadband deployment model to continue this good and vital work.

Claude Aiken is WISPA’s president and CEO. A leader on broadband policy, Aiken joined WISPA in 2018 after nearly a decade at the FCC. While there, he served as a trusted advisor to Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn. He held senior leadership positions in the Wireline Bureau and Office of General Counsel, as well key staff attorney roles throughout the FCC.

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Comments on “WISPs Are Helping Communities Stay Connected And Safe During The Crisis… And Beyond”

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Anonymous Coward says:

What does reserved mean when its spectrum "legalization" has been revoked by its consumer fraud law?

I guess it’s legally fraud? The only solution is to get the fraud and corruption out of the electronics supply chain…. or I guess be as happy as you can be with…. for the people that did it to themselves….

virusdetected (profile) says:

WISP == faster, more reliable service and lower price!

We live in an "urban interface" area and are the very happy customers of a WISP, XtreamInternet, which replaced unreliable and overpriced CenturyLink DSL service. We get much faster (25mbps) service for less money and it’s been totally reliable ever since it was installed. (CenturyLink’s program required that we also have a landline bundled with a costly assortment of features for which we had no use. Then they added on some "cost recovery" fees.) Now our former landline numbers route to Google Voice, which saves us from having to answer dozens of robocalls each day.

Word of warning: we previously tried service from two other WISPs, back in the early days of fixed wireless. Both proved unreliable and had horrid customer service. One of the problems we encountered was that they were routing signal over multiple hops, e.g., from one residence to another. That created multiple points of failure due to wind, snow, homeowner not knowing they were a relay point, and localized power failures. In the ensuing years WISP operators have learned a lot and are no longer amateurs. The equipment is also better. We recommend that prospective customers request uptime performance statistics and customer service call volume data before signing a WISP contract. Well-managed companies are proud to share that information.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

WISPs are only last-mile WISPs

WISPs delivery service wirelessly. Often they do so from towers which are "fed" via wired (fiber optic or copper) service. Sometimes they are fed from other towers.

Unlike cell tower providers, there are no service level agreements (SLAs) requiring WISPs to provide a generator "shack" (container) and HVAC (cooling). In times of a dearth of power the WISPs can and do go offline, unlike cell towers which have between 2-24hrs of fuel, and are regularly replenished by fuel delivery companies.

I know HVAC is not an issue for many. Here in Arizona radio equipment will not survive the heat without cooling. Cooling requires power — more than batteries and solar cells will provide. [heat degrades solar cells, batteries, and reduces circuit breaker capacity by around 20%].

WISPs are not the end-all of anything, and the naive article is amusing, because obviously the author[s] are unaware of various flaws in their topic. WISP operators ARE amateurs, and anybody stupid enough to "request uptime performance statistics and customer service call volume data" will be performing an exercise in NUNYAS.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: WISPs are only last-mile WISPs

In times of a dearth of power the WISPs can and do go offline, unlike cell towers which have between 2-24hrs of fuel, and are regularly replenished by fuel delivery companies.

Apparently, they’re legally required to provide 8 hours of backup power, but that’s rare in practice. You’ll probably be able to contact a tower that still has service, but it may require more power from your phone, and is likely to be congested. More so once those 8-hour batteries are dead—they’re not refilling generators at every tower (and for 5G microcells, that will never be practical).

In my experience, cell networks will fall over from congestion with or without power failures, when a major event such as an earthquake occurs. Text messages might get through, but not regular calls.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: StarLink may be the end for many WISPs

WISPs will still provide better service

To "still" provide "better service" they have to do it in the first place.

…and very likely better customer service.

Very likely not. SpaceX thinks in BILLIONS. WISPs think in millions.

It’s fun to talk about "better customer service" but WISPs and cable companies don’t care about anything more than acquisition of more customers than they lose — the "churn."

That’s not likely to change for terrestrial broadband, but SpaceX has the resources to make a difference. They also have more skin in the game than all the piddly cable companies and WISPs in the US… making success a requirement.


PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: StarLink may be the end for many WISPs

"To "still" provide "better service" they have to do it in the first place."

The provide better service pre-Starlink because Starlink offers zero service before it launches. I believe the AC is saying that WISPs will continue to offer better service after launch, we shall see if he’s right.

"Very likely not. SpaceX thinks in BILLIONS. WISPs think in millions."

…which is a reason why they might not be focussed on customer service. Are you honestly saying that Comcast provides better customer service than a smaller local ISP because they think in terms of billions not millions? Evidence seems to contradict that claim.

"SpaceX has the resources to make a difference"

They also have the resources to say f**k what the average customer actually wants, this is all to make Elon Musk look good to drive investors to SpaceX. He can launch a shiny new product that doesn’t really do anything beneficial to the end user, but reap in a lot of investment between now and when the shine wears off.

"They also have more skin in the game"

Again, an idiotic fallacy. The reason incumbent terrestrial companies are so terrible is because they have "skin in the game", and refuse to upgrade their infrastructure to what their customers need once they’ve managed to effectively lock out competition unable to match their initial investment.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 StarLink may be the end for many WISPs

Sorry if my observation of verifiable and widely documented reality, such as the fact that corporations who make billions often have the worst possible record of customer service and thus disproving one of your half-assed points, was inconvenient for you.

But, whatever you need to avoid the discussion and the realities of the market, I suppose.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: StarLink may be the end for many WISPs

A WISP is line of sight to a tower, while StarLink is line of sight to satellites. This means that a WISP has smaller cells than StarLink, and can serve more customers in urban areas than StarLink can. StarLink will not replace WISPs, except for towers in rural areas with few customers.

BudTugglie (profile) says:

Re: Re: StarLink may be the end for many WISPs

I was under the impression that WISPs were mostly in rural areas, not urban. With StarLink planning on providing higher speeds and eliminating the line-of-sight limitations I’m guessing that they’ll be tough competition for the WISPs.

As a current WISP customer, I get reliable, albeit slow and expensive, service. 8Mbs down for $99/month. With StarLink rolling out much faster service for that same price, I’m switching once I see StarLink demonstrate reliability. I suspect many others will do the same.

Now, if my WISP could match the higher speed and not raise the price, I might consider staying. Customer service isn’t important. Reliability is. If the service is down, all the customer service in the world does not help.

Anonymous Coward says:

I run a WISP. We gave any customers who were unable to work $10 discount and worked with people to make sure they still had connectivity. We lost over 100K in revenue but we gained the respect and loyalty of many customers. It was a no brainer. We will help people the best we can while making enough to stay in business.

fairuse (profile) says:

Re: I run a WISP

For "Reasons" I’ll assume this lack of "company name" is just troll protection.

Question: Since TANSTAFL and the "Digital Divide" is the result of too few customers to justify an investment by, so called Big Cable, is there no incentive to license the reserved spectrum to WISP providers?

(telecoms sure as hell would be against that because they want it all <– my take on it)

Since we are in this situation where public education is all of a sudden REMOTE CONNECTION REQUIRED (yes, caps on) is the shift in funds to the underserved from local school districts to customers of WISP who cannot afford even the best deal the provider can offer to stay in business?

Tricky, but the giant Department of Education hammer seems only interested in social programs – states get federal money for more than just lesson plans; physical infrastructure is excluded? Maybe I’m just channeling the $200,000,000 state bond question for education that had no words about remote connection for students.

Too clarify: School house is over there, student is at home, WISP is doing it’s best to serve but cannot cover all cases from a financial position; voucher system for connecting students maybe (state level $ to provider).

If this ramble is missing the point, it is at best a "Digital Divide" question. (note: the term "Digital Divide" is a political phrase that is catchy but is stupid — means whatever you want it to mean)

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