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Wireless ISP Landscape
Fixed wireless internet service providers, often referred to as WISPs, deliver high-speed broadband services to locations including homes, businesses, local government, and schools. Essentially, a WISP is any internet service provider that uses wireless technology to provide internet access to end users. Considered the quickest-growing segment of the broadband internet industry, starting a WISP business can be very rewarding. Building a WISP can be done faster and at a lower cost versus DSL, cable, or fiber internet networks. This is a major advantage over traditional internet providers and opens this growing market to small businesses and entrepreneurs.
According to a recent survey, about 80% of households in the U.S. subscribe to some type of broadband internet service. However, many of these customers are not happy with their ISP overall. When polled, 64% of users were not happy with their current provider. This dissatisfaction with traditional ISPs makes wireless ISPs a growing alternative. With more remote workers, increasing cloud-based applications, and limited internet options, there is a market for wireless ISPs.
WISPs offer an alternative to traditional ISPs, especially in rural areas with limited network facilities available and geographic constraints. Therefore, if you want to start a wireless ISP, now may be your best chance to explore that opportunity. Starting a WISP business can be very challenging, so some key steps must be taken to be successful.
Selecting a WISP Service Area
Most wireless internet service providers are small to medium-sized companies located in small towns and rural locations. WISPs typically employ local staff who live and know the area in which they serve, as well as ISP challenges. Finding the right location to build an ISP is one of the first and most important steps to consider.
With the right architecture, setting up a WISP can provide internet speeds comparable to DSL, Cable, and even Fiber. In many cases, WISPs are the only high-speed internet providers available, especially in rural areas. Here are the key requirements to ensure you have the right location to start a WISP business:
- Customer Demand: You need demand from new customers or a solid base of individuals, or businesses, who want to switch service providers. Looking at the geographic demand and user density in your potential footprint is essential. Many new WISP startups offer incentives and discount pricing to convince people to change ISPs. Also, offering a satisfaction guarantee can help ease reluctance to sign up with a new internet provider.
- Provider Competition: Knowing what internet services are currently available in an area is also crucial. If your potential WISP service area has existing providers offering high-speed internet at a competitive price point, you might want to look elsewhere. Competing against larger incumbents, without a compelling reason to switch, is a tough sell. Even when you provide a better customer experience. Price, speed, and reliability are key reasons why people stay with existing ISPs.
- Availability of Wholesale Fiber: Ironically, you will need to partner with an internet provider. Typically it’s a large competitor with their own fiber network, to establish your main dedicated fiber internet connection (hub). Good sites are locations on major roads, commercial buildings, cell towers, or data center that has multiple fiber networks.
- Potential Relay Sites: A relay network is a collection of sites, including towers and buildings, to distribute and backhaul internet access. Relay sites extend the wireless footprint over a larger geographic area and support lower user density.
- Good Geography: Hills, mountains, and structures can be a friend or foe unless the right planning is done upfront. Line of sight to relay sites and customers is key for solid network connectivity and QoS. Height allows the ability to transmit wireless signals further, as long as nothing gets in the way.
Setting up a WISP
After finding the right area to start a WISP service, now comes planning and setting up WISP network infrastructure. Depending on how you decide to build your WISP, many factors can dictate your success or failure. Many challenges can be avoided by doing your research from the beginning and with the right frame of mind. The reason why people start an ISP is usually to provide a quality internet service in communities that are underserved or lack dependable internet. You will likely be providing an important service in the community, so committing to quality upfront is a good idea. If you keep this in mind, word will spread and success will follow. In many cases the larger incumbent internet providers have forgotten this point, losing customer loyalty as a result. Here are the basic steps you will need to follow to ensure good service with your WISP startup.
Main Site Planning
There are a few things your service area must have for a WISP business to be successful. First, you should have a good main location (hub) to terminate a dedicated fiber connection to the internet. Second, find a few potential relay sites that are not obstructed for line-of-sight. Remember height is your friend when it comes to these sites. Good sites are multi-story buildings, water tanks, wireless towers, or other larger structures. If those are not available you should explore building a WISP tower/antenna site, with your own land or leased. Without relay sites, options to increase users will be limited, along with WISP profitability.
Second, you need to evaluate the terrain and topography of the area in which you want to service. Flat areas that do not have large hills or mountains are best for a simple WISP set-up. However, this doesn’t mean that you cannot build an ISP in areas with mountainous topography or line of sight issues. It will just require more leg work in network planning and engineering. Using a tool like Google Earth can help evaluate location geography without having to visit an area in person. Elevation can be used as an advantage if it creates a larger service area footprint. Also, it can provide better relay site coverage, eliminate light-of-sight issues, and offer exclusive access to an underserved area.
Securing Dedicated Fiber
It might seem counterintuitive that you need to find an already established fiber internet provider to start a wireless ISP. However, it is a reality that you will need to buy a wholesale dedicated internet connection to serve your customers. In many cases, it will be a direct competitor (large telco, cable co, ISP) with their own fiber networks. Some areas might only have one fiber network option, and others might have a few, but it usually depends on the density of residential or commercial sites.
Having your hub site close to these fiber networks is key to lower network costs since building out fiber is a fairly expensive endeavor. Dedicated fiber installs take 3-4 months, or longer when permitting, trenching, conduit, or network facilities are needed. An existing fiber-lit location (building, tower, data center) can provide cost savings as well as fast-track starting a WISP business. These locations can take 30 days or less to install, which can help get your service offering up quickly. Do your research and find the best wholesale fiber providers for your area upfront to avoid headaches and cost overruns later.
Calculating Bandwidth Needed
As far as how much bandwidth you will need to purchase to start a WISP, there are a few deciding factors. The number of users, peak usage times, applications, as well as speed/plan you are offering customers. The oversubscription/contention ratio for most residential internet services (DSL, cable, wireless) is at least 10:1. There is no real “industry standard” to this ratio, so in many cases, it is higher than that.
So with that in mind, a 10:1 ratio using a 1x1Gbps dedicated fiber connection calculated out would be 10 x 1Gbps = 10Gbps or 10000Mbps. Then divide that number by your plan speed to give you the number of users supported. If you had a 100Mbps plan speed and a 1x1Gbps dedicated fiber connection, that would support around 100 users. This ratio would be applicable for residential users with the normal application load (internet, email, VOIP, video) and usage times. In general, most internet connections don’t use more than 100Mbps of bandwidth for any extended period of time, even with streaming and gaming applications.
Implementing WISP Relay Sites
As previously mentioned, a relay site is a fixed location providing Internet connectivity from the main fiber hub location to your customers using access points. This point-to-point connection to relay sites is a wireless backhaul. An ideal relay site should have unobstructed views to the hub site for this point-to-point backhaul connection. A good potential customer footprint and density are also required to ensure the ROI needed. In some cases, where various obstacles prevent wireless transmission, a fiber backhaul to a tower is required. With hub and relay sites, you will need to negotiate with the site owner to determine the compensation needed for equipment placement. Sometimes that includes offering free Internet access, other times it’s a lease fee, it just depends on the location and situation. Of course, owning the land used is the lower-cost option.
Relay sites can be any building, structure, or tower with height where you can securely fasten equipment with line-of-sight. With these sites, you must have power, and don’t forget to ensure that is available in remote locations. Also, always make sure you can access the relay sites around the clock in case of network or equipment issues. As with your hub site identifying potential WISP relay sites is fairly easy using Google Earth. You can always go in person, or even use a drone to get a better view. Keep in mind good relay sites are key to long-term customer growth, as well as lower capex and opex costs.
Buying Networking Equipment
Identifying, designing, and setting up the proper WISP networking equipment and infrastructure is one of the most challenging aspects of starting a WISP. Your equipment needs to be durable enough to withstand outdoor elements and demands, provide the latest technology needed, as well as accommodate future growth. Factoring in your service location and customer base is a must since different hardware platforms have varying ranges and performance. Most WISP equipment operates in unlicensed radio frequency spectrums, eliminating expensive licensing costs and regulations.
Hub and relay sites have similar equipment and infrastructure needs. These sites would have an antenna, which might require a mount, equipment enclosure, cabling, power, ground, and battery backup. The equipment installed can be a router, switch, backhaul bridge, and access points. On the customer end, you will have a mount for the signal receiver needed, cabling, and a terminating modem or router. When looking at the equipment options always evaluate throughput speeds, range, latency, capacity, and efficiency, in addition to cost. Match the platforms and manufacturers that meet these needs as well as future growth. Looking at peer reviews can be the easiest way to narrow down options, that’s always the best product endorsement.
Technology demands do not end when your network equipment is installed. You will then need to configure your equipment for the network connectivity between the fiber provider at the hub site, relay sites, as well as subscribers. Doing due diligence on network configurations and site set-up can help minimize problems with performance. Monitoring and management of the equipment, as well as the network, is a must. There are numerous cloud-based software platforms that allow WISPs to easily manage networks, customers, and billing, as well as support. Engaging manufacturers as well as support forums can help address and resolve many challenges you run into. When all else fails there are WISP consultants available that can step in and address technical issues outside your knowledge base.
Double Check Regulations
If you don’t have the proper permits or licenses for your WISP, it will fail before it can even start. Check with local and state regulatory boards for an overview of what paperwork is required as well as fees. In general, there are limited regulations for WISPs, especially when utilizing unlicensed spectrum (most used). Keep in mind there is one form you must complete, and that is Form 477 from the Federal Communications Commission. This document is required to determine whether providers can offer services in specific areas. Also, this form submission helps determine who can receive federal grants and funding too. Keep in mind there are penalties for ISPs that do not file this form as well.
Funding usually involves the use of government grants and subsidies, when available, to fund wireless network buildouts (fed, state, local). These funds can change from year to year based on various programs offered, and availability of this funding. If grants are not available another option is traditional private and public financing. Costs to start a WISP run from low ($10K/yr) to high ($1M+/yr), depending on how big or small you go. Having funding in place upfront will ensure the stability needed for building a WISP business.
Building a Customer Base
Developing a customer base is one of the most challenging aspects of starting a WISP. While your marketing efforts will depend on your local area, there are a few things you can do to attract customers. To incentivize new customers to sign-up, you can offer promotions or free equipment. Get the news of your WISP out in the local community as well. A newsletter and developing a presence on social media, Nextdoor, and Yelp are just a few options. Paying for advertising on search engines or with a local newspaper might also help get you off the ground more quickly. Mailers and door-to-door sales can also put a face to a product and make switching providers easier.
Don’t forget the need to develop a good website and customer service team, or app to assist customers. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to increase your customer base. But word of mouth also depends on having happy customers eager to recommend your service. Once you develop a sizable customer base it is a lot easier to maintain stable revenue and grow your WISP footprint.
Resources For Starting a Wireless ISP
- Wireless Internet Service Providers Association: The WISPA is an advocacy organization that promotes the development of the wireless internet service provider industry. It’s an organization with more than 1000 members including providers, vendors, suppliers, and regulatory officials. One of the main objectives of WISPA is to provide information on industry events and other resources to help start a WISP. They hold numerous networking events designed to help providers connect with other members and identify support and learning services.
- Social Media: There is a very active online community of wireless ISPs. WISP resources are available on social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social media channels often highlight networking and learning events to help you start an ISP. This is also a good place to network with other WISP businesses to gain support and forge partnerships.
- Equipment Vendors: Outside of support and technical info on products, many hardware vendors offer forums where WISPs share insights and advice on issues. Vendors such as Ubiquiti, Cambium, Mimosa, and MikroTik all have support forums. Many also offer network management and billing software which integrates with hardware.
- WISP Consultants: If you are new to the technology industry, hiring a WISP consultant to help you with the technical side of setting up a WISP can be a good decision. They can provide you with appropriate technology solutions and assist you with starting a wireless ISP. When hiring a WISP consulting firm, do your research and select a firm with knowledge of your service area. Also, ensure the consultant is an expert in wireless technology or the telecommunications industry.
Need Help Getting Started?
bSimplify specializes in providing technology solutions to commercial and wholesale customers, including wireless internet service providers. We provide WISPs with wholesale fiber network solutions, site selection advice, product information, as well as additional technology solutions. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you with starting a WISP.