By Steve Stroh
(Written by special arrangement for CWLab.)
WINOG – Wireless Network Operator’s Group, is presented by CWLab. The latest conference was held August 15-17, 2005 in Park City, Utah.
WiNOG is well-positioned to serve a segment of the Broadband Wireless industry that has gone unnoticed and unserved. PART-15.ORG’s WISPCON focuses on smaller and startup Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), The combination of Wireless Communications Association’s (WCA) two annual conferences, Shorecliff Communication’s Broadband Wireless World, and Trendsmedia’s WiMAX World focuses on much larger Broadband Wireless Internet Access Service Providers.
WiNOG targets WISPs that are well beyond the startup phase in longevity of business, overall scale of business, network, and number of customers, but have not yet grown to have their needs met by the three larger conferences. This is a very real, but specialized market segment, and Charles Wu, Operating Manager of CWLab, has laser-focused WiNOG to serve this segment very well. While WiNOG is an ideal conference to attend for WISPs that are intent on growing larger and have already started to endure the “pains” of growth, WiNOG’s main audience is to provide peer-to-peer experience exchanges between the “Big WISPs”.
I’d like to make a few more observations about the “Big WISPs” market to help understand some of the points I will be making in this article. From my observations of the Broadband Wireless Internet Access (BWIA) industry over the last eight years, here are some general characteristics of “Big WISPs” that set them apart from smaller or startup WISPs:
- 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.
WiNOG’s overall theme was “Public vs. Private Sector Broadband Network”, and many of the sessions focused on helping Big WISPs really understand the rationale behind Public Broadband Networks – whether to compete more effectively with them, or perhaps to co-opt them, or even to cooperate and interoperate with them. Wu is to be commended for trying to expose Big WISPs to the issue of Public Broadband Networks – there has been far more heat than light from WISPs in general about the motivations and goals of Public Broadband Networks. I think that Wu succeeded in bringing the two sides closer together, albeit mostly from the WISP perspective. To dive deep into Public (Wireless) Broadband Networks, there are two more focused conferences later in the year – MuniWireless 2005 and Wireless Internet Institute Digital Cities.
Unfortunately, my travel arrangements didn’t permit me to attend the first day (technically, the pre-show) of WiNOG (August 15th) which included vendor training sessions and a Welcome reception, nor the morning of the second day of WiNOG (August 16th) which included some very interesting-looking sessions such as the “Backhaul Bash”.
The first session I attended was the Trango Broadband Operator Forum. The three presenters were from Travis Johnson from Microerv of Idaho Falls, Idaho (home.ida.net), Todd Brandenburg from Pocket iNet of Wala Wala, Washington (pocketinet.com), and Brad McGann from wisperTEL of Evergreen, Colorado (www.wispertel.com). It was interesting to note that Johnson developed sufficient expertise in managing large Trango Broadband networks that they spawned off a small subsidiary – Trango Gear (www.trangogear.com) to provide turnkey monitoring systems and a few other accessories to other Trango Broadband users. Brandenburg made a point that they were “100% LEC Free!” – they do not use any “telephone company” connections and instead have arranged a fiber connection from their rural Southeast Washington service area to the primary peering point in Seattle’s Westin Building with access to 62 peering organizations through the Seattle Internet Exchange. wisperTEL advised the audience to “hire the RF guy first; if you don’t, you’ll be digging out from a bad network for a long time” (and may well not survive the experience.) McGann also echoed some good advice they had been given – “hire the best accountant and the best lawyer you can up front” and stated that “it was some of the best money we spent in the early days”. wisperTEL also counseled to “build a solid backbone and get rid of the telco”.
The second session I attended was the Operator M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions) Roundtable. Listening to Dorian Banks, Chief Operating Officer (COO), Chief Technology Office (CTO), and Founder of MetroBridge Networks in Vancouver British Columbia is one of those “drinking from a fire hose” experiences that you experience only a few times at a conference – a really good speaker throwing off so much good information that it’s tough to capture. My notes simply do not to justice to all of the good information that was stated during this session – I was drawn into the conversation instead of acting as observer. But here are a few high points:
- MetroBridge is expanding from Canada into the US and expects to establish (or acquire) operations in 3-5 cities.
- MetroBridge is opening an office in the Middle East – there are enormous opportunities for BWIA Service Providers there.
- MetroBridge offers wholesale services to wireline ISPs at 30-40% off
- MetroBridge’s retail rates... explaining that “RF is HARD”. This is also a subtle way of minimizing contention for use of license-exempt spectrum.
- Investors simply won’t bother with investments of under $5 Million; you need to think big on how you will be scaling your operation to a much higher level to attract significant investment. MetroBridge just received a significant investment and is working toward a second, larger investment round.
- MetroBridge’s average customer is getting 8 Mbps service
- An unusual, and profitable service that MetroBridge offers is “Virtual Collocation”; offering companies to move their data center operations out of their (expensive) high-rise office facilities to MetroBridge dedicated data center facilities nearby, and connecting them with very high bandwidth point-to-point wireless connections.
Beginning Day 3, I attended Public Benefit Broadband presented by Tim King of Public Benefit Broadband which is a not for profit “facilitator” organization to help implement public broadband networks with private backing. Typical organizations that provide the nucleus of such public networks are medical centers, universities (originally to serve their student and faculty outside of the campus). With Public Benefit Broadband’s experience and assistance, it sure sounded like there is a well-established process for beginning such ventures. One interesting piece of advice that King offered was not to make the “nitty gritty” details of the initial studies public; doing so simply provides more ammunition to the competition like telephone companies. He also made the point that conversion of an ISP to a public/private partnership may well be a viable exit strategy for struggling ISPs, allowing them to be recapitalized by external funding.
The second session I attended on Day 3 was BPL: Technology Update by Tom Rigsbee of Motorola. I’ll confess that I have been extremely pessimistic and critical of Broadband Over Powerline (BPL) technology in the past because I feel that it is a poor technological choice for distribution of Broadband Internet Access. In my opinion, BPL is a poor tradeoff for the utility of “High Frequency” (HF, or Shortwave) radio communications by causing interference to services such as Amateur Radio, Public Safety, Marine long range communications, and International Broadcasting. But... I was curious what Motorola was doing with BPL (I had not paid much attention to the announcements previously) and why they were “pitching” BPL to the “Big WISP” audience at WiNOG. Attending this session was the biggest “A-HA!” moment that I had at WiNOG.
Motorola now offers a hybrid Canopy/BPL system that’s ideally suited for use by Big WISPs. In a dramatic, and refreshingly pragmatic departure from current BPL practice of using High Voltage – HV (“High Tension”) and Medium Voltage – MV (“Feeder Lines”) to transmit BPL signals as “backhaul”, Motorola’s system uses a (often already existing) Canopy network as the backhaul, and uses only the “Low Voltage” (“Line from the street”) lines – (those that run from a pole top transformer to a building) to transmit BPL signals. This is a brilliant strategy! First and foremost, the low voltage lines are typically not “up high and in the clear” like HV and MV lines and thus the potential for Motorola’s BPL system to cause interference from the “up-high-and-in-the-clear-is-effectively-an-antenna effect” is very significantly reduced. Motorola also claims to have “notched out” the use of all frequencies that are used in Amateur Radio communications, which has been warmly received by the primary US Amateur Radio organization.
Second, such a low profile, targeted BPL system is an ideal enhancement to a Broadband Wireless network. Staying with Motorola Canopy as an example Broadband Wireless system, while it’s practical to attempt coverage of every housing unit in an average suburb, it’s very tough to attempt coverage of every housing unit in an average urban area. For example, in apartment complexes, half of the units will be on the opposite side of the building from the nearest base station. Use of BPL would allow a single radio to provide coverage to an entire apartment building. Yes, there is the very practical issue of overall throughput speeds when many users are connected via BPL – that’s one of the many areas where in-depth due diligence is required before deploying BPL.
Motorola’s experience is that most electric utility companies are willing to install the Motorola BPL on a case-by-case basis; Motorola provided the compelling example of trying to work with the electrical utility much as a Big WISP would work with a tower company. Some electric utility companies have entered into more intimate arrangements with Big WISPs, receiving a percentage of revenue in return for deploying BPL systems. But cooperation from an electric utility company isn’t necessarily required; in the case of electrical utility service to apartment buildings, for example, it would be possible to connect the Motorola BPL system on the “user” side of the main transformer for the building, which can be done by (licensed) electricians for hire. “Anything done on the customer side of the electric meter is completely legal.”
On of the reasons for optimism for the Motorola BPL system is that the BPL subsystems is a pretty straightforward OEM arrangement for Intellon’s BPL system, which is compatible with the HomePlug standard that consumers can buy and install for in-home distribution of Broadband via power lines.
I then attended Wi-Fiber and Beyond... which I informally describe as the “Gigabeam vs. BridgeWave Cage Match” (apologies to non-US readers). In a nutshell, the two companies described very similar capabilities and technologies, the main difference being that BridgeWave builds systems for the license-exempt 57-64 GHz band, and Gigabeam builds systems for the “semi-licensed” 70/80/90 GHz band.
Tom Wetmore represented Gigabeam. They offer three guarantees – 1-10 Gbps, guaranteed availability (5-9’s within 1 mile, 3-9’s from 2-4 miles), and guaranteed spectrum (licensed path for 10 years). To his discredit, Wetmore spread the usual Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) about the alternative of Free Space Optical (FSO) systems – birds can disrupt the beam, dirt can accumulate, etc. Wetmore claimed that Gigabeam systems have 1nS latency... lower than fiber (~ 1.4nS/foot)! Gigabeam’s signals will pass through 80% of windows with low attenuation. A 1 Gbps link costs approximately $45,000, and a 10 Gbps (when available) will likely cost approximately $100,000. A 70/80/90 initial license coordination costs $500. In questioning by me, Wetmore admitted that the license, like all other spectrum licenses doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be interfered with, but rather provides you with remedy if there is interference. A primary point, though Wetmore may not have actually stated this in his presentation, is that Gigabeam believes (two other founders are rabid in this belief) that businesses will simply not invest in high-bandwidth wireless systems such as Gigabeam’s unless they have the “comfort factor” of a spectrum license.
I didn’t record much of what BridgeWave rep Augustino Lucenti actually said because I was already familiar with BridgeWave’s systems, but I’ll recap some of the overall points with 60 GHz. 57-64 GHz (60 GHz) is license-exempt because it is centered on the oxygen-absorption band. Transmitted signals in this portion of spectrum are absorbed by the oxygen molecules in the atmosphere – the same effect as using a flashlight in a fog. A laser (intensely focused light) will go farther in fog than a flashlight. Focusing a 60 GHz signal (which results in a beamwidth the size of a pencil for 60/70/80/90 GHz) results in effective range of approximately one mile, and perhaps a bit more. This “enforced by physics” range limitation was largely why the FCC decided to make 57-64 GHz license-exempt. BridgeWave plans to come out with 70/80/90 GHz radios in 1Q2006.
The last “session” I attended was a luncheon presentation by Convergence Technologies, Inc. (CTI) on the business benefits for leasing equipment. To their credit, the representative from CTI said a few words, and offered the floor to three Big WISPs who were customers of CTI who were able to cite specific examples of how they were able to scale their business much faster by making use of leasing than they would have been able to do otherwise. CTI is relatively unique in that it understands the WISP market, so applications for “Canopy” gear, etc. are handled knowledgeably. The two biggest determining factors for favorable lease terms are Time In Business and overall financial stability and track record.
Space doesn’t permit me to do justice to any of the interesting sessions that I didn’t personally have a chance to attend. As an illustration of the value to Big WISPs of attending WiNOG, two exhibiting vendors were PowerNOC and that were exhibiting provided a good, or some of the interesting and innovative products that I saw in the WiNOG exhibitor area other than to note that PowerNOC and WISPerMapper offer very good network monitoring and network management (respectively) systems targeted at Big WISPs and more importantly offer support for the wireless (and other) systems that they a Big WISP is likely to use.
In closing, I was impressed with the overall marketing of WiNOG. CWLab was proactive in marketing WiNOG, though the marketing wasn’t quite as effective as it could have been because the date of the conference was changed. CWLab does an impressive (and aggressive) job at getting WiNOG attendees to fill out a survey to accumulate attendee impressions, preferences, and statistics. CWLab also provided attendees with a coupon book with some interesting discounts from relevant vendors. In exactly the right circumstances, some of the better deals in the coupon book could significantly offset the expenses incurred in attending WiNOG. I recommend WiNOG, especially to Big WISPs, and those that want to become Big WISPs, and I hope I’ll be able to attend future WiNOG events.
This article is copyright © 2005, 2007 by Steve Stroh. Permission is granted for CWLab to distribute this article.
About the Author
Steve Stroh was introduced to Broadband Wireless Internet Access in late 1996 and was immediately hooked on this technology that combined two areas of intense personal interest and experience – Internet, and Packet Radio communications. Stroh studied the subject intensively for months, and when an opportunity for new columnists became available in Boardwatch Magazine, Stroh applied, and was accepted. Boardwatch covered the emergence of the small, independent Internet Service Provider industry. Stroh’s monthly column, Wireless Data Developments, ran from April, 1997 through November, 2002. As a result of his writing in Boardwatch, which was expanded to include feature articles as wireless systems and technology steadily assumed greater importance to ISPs and enterprises, Stroh was asked to contribute to other magazines such as CLEC, Broadband Wireless Business, Private and Wireless Broadband, IEEE Spectrum, and CQ Amateur Radio. Stroh’s articles have been widely praised and often cited for their clarity and depth of coverage of subjects relating to Broadband Wireless Internet Access.
In May 2001, as his writing career expanded, Stroh transitioned from his job as a Systems and Network Administrator at a major corporation to writing full time about Broadband Wireless Internet Access. In June, 2002 Stroh launched FOCUS On Broadband Wireless Internet Access, a subscription newsletter which offers its readers “Independent, original, in-depth coverage of the trends and technology shaping the BWIA industry”. As a result of his in-depth industry knowledge, Stroh is a sought-after speaker, and has spoken at conferences such as WISPCON, WiNOG, ISPCON, Wireless Communications Association (WCA) Conferences, and Wi-Fi Planet Conference. In Summer, 2002, Stroh contributed written comments to the FCC Spectrum Policy Task Force inquiry. His comments were so well received that he was offered a coveted panel position at the Spectrum Policy Task Force hearings at FCC Headquarters in Washington DC. Some of Stroh’s key points were included in the findings of the SPTF. Stroh’s most important credential is his independence. His truly independent perspective is unmatched in the Broadband Wireless Internet Access industry. He is not beholden to any particular vendor, service provider, or technology. While Stroh does offer consulting services (by request), such services are largely an extension of and distinctly secondary to his writing activities.
You can learn more at Zero Retries Newsletters page.