Rainbow Broadband Leads Charge to Bring Fixed Wireless to Brooklyn

Xconomy New York — 

Microwaves belong in kitchens, right?

Not according to Russ Hamm, president and founder of New York-based Rainbow Broadband.

Since 2004, Hamm and his firm have been installing microwave antennas on rooftops across Manhattan capable of providing fixed wireless Internet service to hundreds of clients in a roughly two-mile radius. The devices are capable of wirelessly providing businesses with download and upload speeds of up to 10 gigabits of data per second by bouncing microwaves between a network of rooftop hubs and receivers.

And earlier this fall, Rainbow made its first jump across the river, installing a new system on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While his company has more than 300 clients in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and west Queens (some of the existing hubs are capable of providing a signal across the river from a tower in Manhattan), Hamm said the decision to move into Williamsburg was fueled by that area’s burgeoning tech community and a simultaneous dearth of high-speed options.

“In Williamsburg, as far as telecom is concerned, it’s pretty outdated,” Hamm, a former record executive, said. “There is not fiber optic capacity.”

He added that one of his company’s major advantages is a roughly one-day installation process that takes place almost solely on rooftops. Fiber installation is typically a more arduous process that can involve street closures and other disturbances.

One of Rainbow’s first customers to use the new Williamsburg hub, Industria, an event-hosting and equipment rental company, confirmed getting high-speed wireless in the borough was a challenge.

“Frankly, Williamsburg had very limited accessibility,” said Costanza Musumeci, studio manager at Industria’s newest Williamsburg outpost, which opened this summer. “It wasn’t super straightforward to provide that service.”

Rainbow has provided short-term and long-term service to some of the country’s most well-known media rocket ships, including Twitter, BuzzFeed, and Vice Media.

Williamsburg’s recent and rapid growth also made the decision to install a hub there an easy one, according to Hamm. “Williamsburg has become a magnet for the tech crowd,” Hamm said. “It used to be a very bohemian place with a lot of night clubs and stuff like that. Lately, it’s a magnet for the tech community.”

In 2013, about three times as many people lived in the census tract at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge—which encompasses the ZIP code in which the new Rainbow hub is located—as in 1990, according to census data. The tract immediately to the south grew nearly five-fold in the same timeframe. Median household incomes, too, have risen across much of the neighborhood, according to census data. Residents earning more than $90,000 annually were formerly limited to a thin strip of communities along the banks of the East River, but the wealth has slowly trickled inland in the past 30 years, data show.

Once relegated to rural communities with limited connectivity, fixed wireless firms have become increasingly bullish on urban centers, according to Nathan Stooke, owner of a fixed wireless firm outside of St. Louis and a former board member of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. Stooke said that shift is due in no small part to a growing portion of city dwellers who have become increasingly disenchanted with the industry’s heavyweights, such as the area’s eternal technological boogie man, Time Warner Cable.

“Traditionally, the rural market has been our bread and butter,” he said. “We’re starting to see…shifts. Traditionally, we’ve stayed out of the urban area—now it is a very, very ripe area for us to move into.”

Time Warner, Comcast, and other telecommunication giants consistently earn some of the poorest customer satisfaction ratings in the industry, according to surveys compiled by Consumer Reports. New ratings released this summer show no change to that trend.

Following the Williamsburg expansion, Hamm said, Rainbow is next planning on setting up additional hubs in Long Island City, a location he said he believes could be the region’s next technological hub.

“These tech-savvy businesses are moving into Long Island City because you get a lot of space for a very reasonable price,” he said.

Nationally, fixed wireless and alternative Internet providers are on the upswing, according to Stooke, who cited preliminary data from a soon-to-be-published report that estimates the number of fixed wireless customers in the U.S. could double from 4 million to 8 million between 2017 and 2021. (One of the newer efforts is Starry, out of Boston and New York, led by Chet Kanojia, who previously led streaming TV service Aereo.)

And despite recent job cuts and whispers of tumult at Google’s fiber division, executives at the tech giant have recently attempted to assuage investor concerns. As part of revamping its strategy, the division expanded into wireless Internet technology this year with its acquisition of San Francisco-based Webpass.

“Until about five years ago, there wasn’t a lot of innovation,” Stooke said of the wireless broadband industry. “There’s been a pickup in the past two to three years of real innovation. The whole ‘cutting the cord,’ and switching to more of a Netflix or over-the-top solution has really picked up.”