Next-Gen Wireless Internet Firms Take On Telecoms in Cities, Suburbs

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just short of 67 Mbps and 21 Mbps for uploads.

Fiber networks, however, beat speed records hands-down—where they are available. In rankings this year by PCMag.com, which runs its own speed tests, the top three spots among all U.S. Internet service providers went to Longmont, CO, municipal fiber-based service Nextlight, then Google Fiber, and in third place, Sonic, a fiber-optic network that operates in the Bay Area. Here again, though, a WISP made a showing: Colorado-based DirectLink ranked ninth. DirectLink’s speed was second only to Nextlight’s in Colorado regions where both are available.

Santa Rosa, CA-based Sonic is a formidable competitor for the Bay Area’s WISPs, but it has struggled for access to utility poles so it can run its Gigabit-capacity fiber into more homes and offices, FierceTelecom reported.

It can be difficult for consumers to make direct price comparisons between a local WISP service and the rates of their big competitors, which display low monthly charges for an initial period requiring a contract of a year or more. The established companies also bundle Internet plans into package deals that can include mobile connections and a set menu of cable TV channels.

For people who want to create tailored “bundles” of their own, WISPs offer the option to become cord-cutters—foregoing cable TV and spending their money on the streaming video services that best suit their interests from a proliferating number of companies such as Netflix and Roku.

The growth of this on-demand online video entertainment—much of it watched at home—is one big factor that makes fixed wireless an important segment of the Internet service market, Lux Capital partner Renata Quintini wrote in a blog post, as Lux invested in Common Networks when it emerged from stealth mode in mid-2017.

Despite the popularity of using mobile devices on the go, Quintini says the home is a center for many growing areas of online activity. “More people are working remotely, and doing so for longer periods of time,” she writes. Millions of people are also turning to online education to earn degrees and build workplace skills, she says, while connected devices are multiplying within homes, delivering more kinds of services, such as security and smart assistants like Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Apple HomePod. Fans of high-end virtual reality experiences also need faster Internet speeds, Quintini says.

WISP niches: suburban neighborhoods, consumer-friendly policies

The WISP pioneers in San Francisco—Webpass and Monkeybrains—started out by concentrating on dense high-rise neighborhoods and business centers in San Francisco. Their new competitors are trying to reach homes in outlying metropolitan areas. Common Networks is focusing on suburban markets in the western United States as it plans its ultimate expansion. Similarly, Sail Internet is targeting dense suburban and medium density neighborhoods in San Francisco, and the company has its eyes on medium-sized cities such as Sacramento and Spokane, WA, CEO Fisher says.

“We’re going after the sweet middle where most people live,” Fisher says. Sail originally intended to serve mostly houses and apartment buildings, but it responded to demand from businesses, he says. Some Bay Area industrial parks and other business centers are poorly served by established Internet providers, Fisher says.

In addition to competing with entrenched ISPs on the basis of price, WISP founders often take consumer-friendly stances on policy issues that further distinguish themselves from the telecom giants. For example, Common Networks pledges not to store or sell its customers’ personal browsing histories, and Fisher says Sail doesn’t track the browsing patterns of users. Sail will also continue to honor the principle of net neutrality—recently overturned by the FCC—by transmitting all content on an equal basis, Fisher says. The FCC action this year now allows Internet service providers to offer higher speeds or better service to content distributors who pay them more.

The entry of a WISP into a metropolitan area can put competitive pressure on an entrenched ISP, both as to price and user policies. But it may be hard for some of these small players to maintain a market toehold, let alone scale up substantially and become big companies themselves, Schaeffler says.

The incumbents will often drop their rates for a while, making it hard for the small newcomer companies to draw away customers, Schaeffler says. The big firms with video franchises also have corporate relationships that can give them a lock on the movies and other content that customers would still want to access if they cut the cable cord, he says.

That said, big telecommunications firms and tech companies are not dismissing the WISPs as irrelevant little pests. In fact, large companies such as Verizon and AT&T are using the same wireless technology to extend their own networks, as detailed by FierceWireless. Buying a WISP is one way to accomplish that, as Google did with Webpass.

That means the established Internet service providers are part of a pool of possible buyers if a WISP founder is ready to sell. That could make potential WISP investors more sanguine, because an acquisition offers an exit short of an IPO. Other possible acquirers, Fisher says, include mobile carriers like T-Mobile, satellite communications companies, and streaming video services like Netflix that might want to protect their access to customers, he adds.

For now, Fisher says he’s focused on becoming a nationwide player in Internet access with millions of subscribers. He wouldn’t rule out an eventual acquisition, though.

“If the right partner comes along and believes in your vision, you should be open to it,” Fisher says.

Photo credit: Depositphotos

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