Writing Time…

As you can tell from the sparseness of my posts here, I have not been devoting a lot of time to writing.   Like many WISPs, my business is evolving rapidly and there has been a constant cycle of equipment upgrades and repairs, far too much winter weather for my tastes and all of the other assorted trials and tribulations that small businesses face.   However, I have finally reached a point where I feel like I can take some time off and work on other things, so I am going to tackle something I have wanted to do for a long time.

I am writing a book about Wireless Internet Service Providers.

I am going to tell the story about how I became a WISP, the people I have met along the way, the amazing things that WISPs have done and what I think the future holds.   I have not written anything over about 20 pages and my college journalism classes are a distant memory, but I am going to get on with it and see how far I can get.   I will most likely share a few excerpts here and I would certainly welcome stories from others that are in the WISP business.

I appreciate everyone who has been reading this and am looking forward to this new project!

 

WISPs and Online Video

I did a series of phone interviews with Jimmy Schaeffler last month before the WISPAPALOOZA show.   The focus of his topic was how WISPs could take advantage of and help forward the cable-cutting movement by embracing online video.   Here is a link to a story that he recently published in Multichannel News about WISPs:

http://www.multichannel.com/blogs/mixed-signals/whipping-wisps-why-nation%E2%80%99s-wireless-internet-service-providers-need-video

(of note – I am in Scottsbluff, NE (Nebraska), not Council Bluffs, NB (New Brunswick) – the former journalist in me had to point that out!)

Thanks Jimmy!

 

The WISP Tower

I have several locations where we have had to make do with improvised deployments that have ranged from a big pipe in the ground with dishes on it to pulling our nice converted COW trailer to a pasture in Wyoming to establish connectivity into a town and having to leave it in place for almost a year.    The improvised setups have worked okay, but there are limits to how far you can go up in the air when you can’t put in a solid concrete base for a tower – and our COW is overkill and really too expensive and useful to have sitting in a pasture for a year.   Also, I have run into situations where a county or town expects to have a building permit pulled before putting a tower in place, even a short 30’ tower.   Which is a pain.

Over the last few months, I have been working with a local manufacturing company to design and build a heavy duty, semi-portable tower system for use in places where there is no existing infrastructure.    The idea is that we can take this unit out, deploy it in a short period of time and be able to leave it at a location indefinitely.   It also had to be stable enough to hold a 30’ tower with multiple backhaul dishes and access point antennas and simple enough that a two man crew could put it up without any special tools or equipment needed.

Prototype Tower

Prototype Tower

Our prototype unit was rushed into service in July when we had to find an alternate way to feed a town in Wyoming.   All we had available to us was a hilltop that had line of sight to the town and one of our towers which was 28 miles away.   There was no power available for miles, nearly solid rock on the top of the hill and very limited accessibility – five miles of cow trails and a very steep final incline to get to the top of the hill.    Putting in a typical tower was going to be nearly impossible, and we really needed to get 20’ of elevation to make the paths work well.    The prototype ended up working out perfectly.   It took two of us about four hours to get the tower put up, dishes and backhaul radios installed and the site fully operational on a battery pack.   It then took another four hours the next day to get a solar power plant installed and fencing put up around the site to keep curious antelope from chewing on the wires.    After three months, everything is working perfectly.

Last month, we put up the first of the production units on a hilltop in Nebraska.   We had a potential customer that was using HughesNet at home to run her good-sized consulting business and was desperate for a good Internet connection.  We couldn’t get a connection to her house from our nearest AP, but she had a hilltop on her farmland nearby that not only had a good path to two of our towers, it also had good potential as a access point location for quite a few potential customers that were shadowed from the other wireless ISPs in the area as well as the mobile operators.

First Production Tower

The first production tower, operational in less than four hours.

The production tower went up remarkably easy.   It took us only two hours to go from unhooking the trailer from the pickup to full deployment of the 25′ tall tower with antennas mounted and wires run.   It took us another hour to get the solar panels and batteries hooked up, and another 45 minutes or so of antenna alignment, so total deployment time from start to finish was under four hours.   The first customer was installed a week later and within another ten days, all of our traffic to this town was re-routed to go through this tower because it was two hops closer to our local fiber connection in this area.

Four hours to get a broadband facility may not sound like anything special, but it is a pretty remarkable achievement.    Putting up a tower is usually a done over a period of months.   Site negotiations, power planning, tower engineering, permitting, environmental studies, ordering the hardware, pouring concrete, waiting for the concrete to cure, configuring the wireless equipment and finally installation of the facilities are all items that take a long period of time to get completed.  A typical cell tower deployment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and takes months.   Our WISP microcell tower was put up in a day and cost well under $10,000.   In the future, we can deploy a new broadband facility within 48 hours and start installing customers as soon as the backbone connection is established.   The portable tower is extremely low maintenance and very sturdy.   Our operational history indicates that we should only have to replace batteries once every 3-4 years.   The ability to drop a fully functional tower into place in a matter of days is a powerful weapon for a WISP to have.

I am very excited about the potential for these new tower setups.   They will make excellent microcell platforms, for clusters of customers who cannot get service from a traditional tower setup due to distance or vegetation.   Our tower in Wyoming is the endpoint of a perfect example of telco bypass – hooking up the last 35 miles of a telephone company bypass network that stretches across two states and 185 miles and provides the equivalent performance of a $4000/month DS3 connection.   Other uses for this type of tower setup include temporary installations for special events and emergency network deployments in disaster areas.

One of the biggest advantages of the fixed wireless/wisp model is flexibility and speed of deployment.   The WISP Tower is a tool that will enhance both of these features and open up many new possibilities for WISPs.

FCC OIAC Annual Report Released

The FCC released the OIAC Annual Report today.   I mention this because I represented WISPA on the OIAC and contributed to the Transparency and Mobile Broadband sections of the report.    Here is a link:

http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/open-internet-advisory-committee

I would be happy to answer any questions about the report or discuss topics of relevance from the report.

Matt Larsen

The Finish Line is In Sight!

I spent some time today working on an equipment order and decided to run a report to see what upgrades we had left to do at any of our smaller tower sites to go along with the projects on our work schedule.    What I found was that I am about $17,000 and three months of work from the finish line, and I thought that was something worth celebrating.

Let me explain…

I look at network upgrades kind of like I look at my email inbox.   More stuff is always going to show up and have to be dealt with, but two or three times a year I get to the end of my inbox and there is no email there that requires my attention.     The next day, the inbox starts to fill up again, but I always take a little bit of time to feel like I got caught up.

Vistabeam is coming up on our tenth year in business, and it seems like it has been a life of constant upgrades and expansion.   We started out with three towers fed by T1 lines and are now at 114 different AP or BH locations with 2500+ miles of microwave backhaul.   To say that the expansion was uneven and not always well planned would be an accurate.    There was a lot of learning and experimenting that went on throughout that time, and the messes did not always get cleaned up right away.    Throughout that time, the business evolved and one of the important steps in that evolution was to clean up all of the messes right down to the last lonely repeater.

I am really proud of the progress that we have made over the last year.   We made a concerted effort to put adequate, monitored battery backups and power controllers at all of our sites, documented the network with a very detailed database, replaced old StarOS backhauls with Mikrotiks and overloaded Mikrotiks with licensed links, added AP capacity where it was needed, setup our NOC with a backup generator, moved the majority of our servers to a pair of XEN servers with a NAS and revised our customer plans to eliminate all sub-1meg speed packages.   Doesn’t sound like that much, but when you are dealing with 2500+ customers spread out across three states and ten years of accumulated errors and omissions – it is a pretty sizeable challenge.

Anyway, it feels good to finally be at the point where it looks like there will be a day, sometime before the end of the year, when I will be able to look at the to-do list and see that there isn’t anything on it.

Free Public WIFI and Externalities

I have been digesting the discussions about open wifi access points and the recent Free Public Wifi debates that came up after Cecilia Kang’s Washington Post article and I think I finally came up with a good way to express my grave concerns with the idea.

The continued use of inexpensive fossil fuels leads to the unintended consequences of global warming and the degradation of our environment, and the same goes for the concept of free shared public wifi access.   Shared free access leads to an increase in utilization of network infrastructure with no economic benefit to the network provider.   I recognize that there are going to be situations where free wifi access is considered to be an economic benefit (McDonalds, Starbucks, etc) but in those situations the entity providing it would be reasonably expected to be purchasing a commercial grade connection in order to deliver that service.    One person with an open wifi connection on a residential account, sharing it with their neighbors, is taking potential customers away from the provider while increasing the oversubscription ratio of their network.   This will eventually lead to performance degradation, increased prices or both, so FREE is anything but.   Free public wifi is the equivalent of global warming on our broadband infrastructure.

A network operator has to face the massive increase in demand for bandwidth and pay the bills to upgrade infrastructure, while facing stagnant or declining revenues.    This is a daunting task to deal with already, so encouraging people to share their connections is more carbon based fuel thrown on the fire.

Nothing is free!

Talking Wireless ISPs on Gigabit Nation

Craig Settles does a weekly show about broadband in America called Gigabit Nation.   I will be his guest this week, talking about the roles of fixed wireless ISPs in the broadband ecosystem.   The show starts at noon, EST.

Here is the link to the show   http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gigabitnation/2012/08/28/wisps-tips-for-better-engaging-these-broadband-stars

I look forward to the comments and discussion tomorrow!

Last Yard Connectivity Upgrades Needed!

One of my techs has been reporting for a long time that he has not been getting his full speeds and has had problems with his VOIP phone.   Last week, we mandated that the techs learn how to program a MIkrotik 751U router and sent one home with all of them to use.   Lo and behold, after moving his VOIP adapter/router from the front of the line to behind the router he started getting his full speeds and the VOIP started working better.    These are Linksys ATAs, and we have been using them with Ubiquiti AirMax radios.    He went from 3-5meg top speeds to 10-12meg (what he should be getting).

This was just the latest of many issues we have been seeing with customers using consumer grade routers, especially on the wireless interface.   Cannot tell you how many customers have been complaining about speed issues on 4meg+ plans that don’t exist when we test to the radio or to a laptop directly connected to the radio.

In one of the weird ironies of this business, we now have wireless last mile equipment that is capable of delivering speeds far faster than a lot of the existing consumer indoor routers (wired and wireless) can deliver to the last few yards.

Argh!

A Message from the Past

While Googling something else, I came across this message that I sent out to our nascent WISPA list right after my father passed away in January of 2004.   I thought it was worth sharing again…

Hi everyone,

I wanted to take a moment to thank you guys for being
supportive on one really tough day.

We have had an overwhelming amount of support over
the last couple of days from our friends and family
and other people in our community.  In addition to being
a well-known businessman, dad spent a lot of time
volunteering at our county fair and being a good friend
to a lot of people.  His passing was the top news story
on the local radio station on Friday, which is a pretty
good indication of the impact he had on our community.

When I was living in a trailer house and driving a
$25 car back in 1997, my dad was one of the very few people
who believed in me and gave me the support I needed to start
my first ISP business.  I might be stuck in a dead-end job or
flipping burgers if it wasn't for the help that he offered
me.  The only thing that he didn't tolerate from a person
was not performing to the best of their ability.  One of
the last things he told me was "do your best and keep
getting after things" and I am going to do all I can to
fulfill his wishes.

Rather than sending flowers or anything like that, I would
ask that you keep alive the spirit of helping others. 
Volunteer some time to a cause that means something to you. 
If you have the ability, give an opportunity to someone who
could use a break.  The rewards that come back to you will
mean much more than the time that you spend.  I think
that the new WISPA efforts are going to pay back big rewards
to all of us and I'm going to volunteer a lot of my time to
that project - you guys can choose whatever works for you.

Best wishes to all of you, and I'll see you again in a couple
of days.

Do your best,

Matt Larsen

Freedom to Connect is Missing an Important Element

I have always had a lot of respect for David Isenberg and the ideals of the Freedom to Connect conference.    David was the first to widely promote the “stupid network” concept – networks that are little more than big, open pipes with a minimal amount of intermediate management applied to the flow of information.   David has also put on several of the Freedom to Connect conferences, a gathering of enlightened people looking for the best ways to make universal broadband access a reality.   I had the privilege of attending the 2006 F2C in Washington DC and spent the majority of the conference having my brain stretched in several different directions.   It was one of my first “near the Beltway” experiences – an opportunity to interact with academics, policy makers, politicians and deep thinkers.   As I look at the agenda for this year’s F2C, I am impressed by the number of quality participants that are going to be there.   But there is something very important missing and I can’t let it slip by.   The agenda shows speaker after speaker extolling the virtues of fiber powered community networks, but F2C has missed the boat on the most disruptive and cost effective competitive alternative to the cable/telco duopoly – fixed wireless utilizing unlicensed spectrum and the WISPs all over the world that are delivering broadband to their communities.

There is no disagreement from me that fiber everywhere is the ultimate connectivity goal.   But I have some very substantial disagreements with the timeline and economic costs to get there.   First of all, it takes a long time to build wireline networks of any kind – including fiber – and the construction of those networks is usually delayed at every corner by right-of-way negotiations, availability of materials, regulatory roadblocks and an insane amount of logistical issues.   While all of these things are holding up the deployment of the network, potential users are stuck with substandard or no broadband connectivity.   Second, fiber is EXPENSIVE (caps intended) and the economic model doesn’t work without substantial commitment from investors or a high percentage of government subsidization.   This high cost means that community-oriented and entrepreneurial smaller providers are usually kept out of the market.  The majority of fiber providers are either larger corporations that are prone to redlining and restrictive access policies, or government supported systems that put an undue strain on taxpayers through their dependence on subsidies or construction bonds.

I talked with several ISP operators about fiber during the ISPAmerica conference last month.   The universal conclusion from them is that fiber is just too expensive to deploy to the home in any kind of realistic (re: unsupported by outside revenue) business model.   One of the people I talked to was Dane Jasper, who has gotten a lot of attention for his deployment of gigabit fiber in Sebastopol, CA.   He agreed that fiber won’t cash flow on its own, and needs to be supplemented with a lot of copper to make a worthwhile business case.   None of the community network advocates has ever been able to show me a model where they could make the network stand on its own without a substantial amount of subsidization through taxes or government bonds.   And the fiber economic model really falls apart when you get outside of the dense urban environments and into suburban and rural areas.   The cost to deploy fiber in these areas goes up even while the number of potential customers goes down.

Fixed wireless on unlicensed spectrum has many important advantages in comparison to fiber:

 

1)       Fixed wireless is inexpensive.   The cost of building out fiber to the 700 homes in my rural hometown is estimated at somewhere between $800,000 and $1,000,000, which doesn’t include the ongoing maintenance and pole-attachment costs.   This cost also doesn’t account for the hundreds of homes outside of the city limits.    The cost to put up three fixed wireless clusters to serve the same set of homes – and all of the homes outside of the city limits – is about $15,000.   Ongoing operational costs are also lower because there are no pole-attachment rights.   If done right, wireless will PAY for the fiber deployment without taxpayer support or ongoing need for investor support.

2)      Fixed wireless can be deployed quickly.   Fiber networks take months of negotiation and require specialized equipment and workers before you even get into the field.  Field work is also very time-consuming and can be stalled out by weather.    A new wireless POP can be deployed within a week and tied to multiple new towers in the same time it takes a fiber crew to hook up a block of homes.   New unlicensed backhauls like the Ubiquiti AirFiber can extend gigabit speeds to any point within five miles that has clear line of sight back to the head end, bypassing the need for right-of-way.

3)      Fixed wireless is fast enough.   The newest generation of fixed wireless systems are far beyond DSL speeds and can keep up with cable.   Gigabit to the end user is not a reality and probably never will be due to spectrum constraints, but 20-30meg service to end users is possible and already being offered by many fixed wireless providers.    I live in a house five miles out in the country, with three laptops, two smartphones, two iPads, four workstations, an Internet-enabled TiVO and a Roku box.   10meg Internet service meets all of our current needs, so for all practical purposes the difference between 10meg and 100meg or 1gig is negligible.

4)      Fixed wireless is igniting a wave of innovation around the world.   Companies like Ubiquiti, Mikrotik and Cambium are coming up with incredible, low cost systems that are perfectly capable of delivering broadband performance in places where there is no wireline infrastructure or that infrastructure is not accessible.   Thousands of fixed wireless providers are bypassing telcos and cable operators to deliver broadband to otherwise unserved or underserved end users.   In several countries and regions around the world, fixed wireless is the most popular way to get broadband.

I am very disappointed to see Isenberg and F2C disregard the power and potential for disruptive change that fixed wireless represents.   However, I offer up a chance to make amends.   WISPA, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, will be conducting their advocacy day activities the week before F2C.   If Dr. Isenberg can make some space on the agenda, I’m sure that there are two or three very capable fixed wireless operators who would be interested in spreading the gospel of fixed wireless and WISPs to the F2C crowd.   If the goal of Freedom to Connect is to show the possibilities and solutions available now to help deliver universal connectivity, then fixed wireless networks and the community of WISP operators need to be part of the discussion.