Matt Larsen, Owner of Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) Vistabeam headquartered in Scottsbluff, Nebraska dropped me and a few other friends a note a few days ago modestly mentioning that Vistabeam had hit 2000 active customers.
As Larsen put it so well in his note: The reason that 2000 customers is special is because that is
generally regarded in the WISP business as the number of customers
needed to be
self sufficient and maintainable indefinitely. It is supposed
to be like a plane breaking the sound barrier – it gets a lot easier
after you get across it.
I agree with Larsen wholeheartedly, and at 2000 active customers, he's definitely crossed into the territory of "Big WISPs", which I wrote about in 2005. Some characteristics of "Big WISPs" that Vistabeam embodies:
- Big WISPs are well capitalized with bank lines of credit, leasing programs, and favorable terms from vendors and resellers.
- Big WISPs have often acquired other ISPs, including dialup and wireless.
- Big WISPs typically have more than ten employees, including dedicated administrative personnel and technical support.
- Big WISPs use built-to-purpose Broadband Wireless Internet Access equipment from major vendors such as Motorola Canopy and Trango Broadband.
- While Big WISPs use systems from major vendors, they retain the ability to build special systems for special requirements.
- Big WISPs consider managing their network extremely thoroughly to be a core competency, and their resulting reliability of their networks is very high.
- Many, but by no means all Big WISPs have active marketing programs to recruit new customers, and regularly engage in proactive Public Relations activity such as Press Releases.
- Some Big WISPs have been able to build out their network sufficiently to bypass the need for using Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC) – “phone company” connectivity such as T-1 and T-3 circuits.
- Through favorable pricing and performance and good reputation with customers Big WISPs are maintaining and growing their customer base in spite of competition from DSL and cable modem offerings, including recent aggressive low-cost offerings.
- Big WISPs cannot be generalized about market size – they’re found in rural areas, urban areas, and every size of market in between.
- Unlike Broadband Wireless Service Providers, Big WISPs are very price sensitive about their equipment cost. They will spend what they need to spend to insure reliable performance, but they will not spend lavishly, and demand excellent price/performance from the systems they choose to use.
- Big WISPs make extensive and often exclusive use of license-exempt spectrum, often all three ISM bands – 902-928 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5.3/5.7/5.8 GHz. Some Big WISPs have begun using licensed spectrum, especially for high-value customers and backbones. Gigabit links are have become sufficiently affordable for Big WISPs.
Larsen and Vistabeam are two favorites of mine because Larsen and Vistabeam embody the best of what WISPs are, what they can do technically and operationally, and how much impact they can make in smaller communities that are often underserved. I was lucky enough to visit Larsen and Vistabeam in Scottsbluff several years ago, and I was impressed with the professional attitude that Larsen has to his customers and his operation, but also the pride he has in providing a valuable service to the communities he serves.
Larsen is an innovator in the WISP industry. One of his more notable achievements was getting ticked off at outrageous pricing (and typical rapacious legacy telco behavior in their billing practices) of Qwest, and deciding to bypass them for backhaul, and constructing his own 100-mile-plus backhaul link to one of the cities Vistabeam served. Most would say that wasn't doable with a budget less than $100K, and it wasn't doable at all using license-exempt spectrum, but Larsen did it (and remains modest about the achievement). (I was delighted to discover, in researching this article, that Larsen himself had finally documented this achievement.)
Larsen is successful for a number of reasons. He's poured a lot of himself into growing the WISP industry as a whole and was one of the founding members, and current board member, of WISPA - the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. WISPA has grown into a full-fledged industry representative organization, and their well-done web page offers ample evidence of what WISPs are capable of.
Larsen has done extensive research and testing on the equipment choices he's made and made early and prescient bets on paying a bit more for better equipment that installs "turnkey", judging that the higher cost was justifiable in fewer irritated customers from fewer operational problems and higher reliability. I remember him mentioning casually at one of our meetings at an industry conference that he'd just received "another pallet of radios".
Vistabeam's service area is much greater than Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Vistabeam's coverage is extensive (the map in the link doesn't really give you a sense of scale). One example community served is Laramie, Wyoming, home of the University of Wyoming, and some 160 miles from Scottsbluff. It's instructive that Laramie is also served by a long-time, boisterous rival WISP, and Vistabeam only began serving Laramie at the specific request of potential customers.
Vistabeam's achievements and capabilities vividly illustrate the failings of current Broadband and Telecommunications policy when it comes to providing basic telecommunications services to rural areas. Every telephone customer in rural areas is subsidized by various subsidy programs of the US Government to the tune of hundreds of dollars per month. Yet, many rural areas are denied full participation in the online economy because the telephone companies claim that they cannot cost-effectively provide broadband services. (Satellite doesn't count - it's severely limited in the amount of data that you are allowed to download, it's slow, unreliable, and because of the physics of radio signals making a 44,600 mile round trip - a lot of Internet applications don't work well. And, it's very expensive.) Larsen and other WISPs don't tout this (anymore - they took their lumps), but they've become "stealth phone companies" by their customers using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephony services such as Skype and Vonage over their Broadband Internet services.
While Larsen remains a bit too modest to toot his own horn consistently (he hasn't done that "Big WISP" step of engage in proactive Public Relations activity such as Press Releases, for example), he's getting the word out in his own way, such as creating sufficient interest to merit articles in local press, and now stretching his long-unused Journalism training (he's a Journalism major) in a series of articles titled The Story of Medicine Bow: A Parable of Rural Broadband (Part 1 is linked) that reads like a long-form article out of Wired Magazine.
For all his achievements, Larsen remains admirably modest. He's happiest when at home with his wife and young son, and remains grateful for the early backing and encouragement of his late father. I'm really proud to call Matt a friend and colleague, and add my voice to the chorus of congratulations at Vistabeam achieving its 2000th customer.
By Steve Stroh
Copyright 2010 by Steven K. Stroh. All rights reserved.
It's OK to excerpt from and link to this article, but please be considerate and don't copy it wholesale without obtaining permission.
Apologies - the name of the city is Scottsbluff, not "Scotts Bluff".