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WISPs, From a Whisper To a Roar

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WISPs, From a Whisper To a Roar
Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) are picking up customers that no other technology has proven to be as successful at acquiring cost effectively. WISPs are providing compelling services in otherwise under-served communities across both the United States and the wider world. With the WISP customer base and its associated revenues expected to double every five years, clear synergies exist between the WISPs and cable operators. With assistance in both the technical and contractual aspects of these arrangements, both industries stand to benefit in serving these markets.

The Technology Convergence Between Multi-gigabit Cable Backhaul and Wi-Fi

The rapidly evolving Wi-Fi ecosystem has contributed to a host of opportunities for home automation, Smart TVs and IP STBs (Set-Top-Boxes), security systems, cameras, multi-function printer/scanners and NAS (Network Attached Storage) appliances. The rise of Wi-Fi has also enabled cell providers to use Wi-Fi Offload to alleviate congestion on their networks, but the story is far bigger than that. Wi-Fi has grown beyond being merely a wireless method of connecting devices within the home, or of ameliorating the need to pull cabling in home or office environments, providing a degree of mobility to the user. Commercial Wi-Fi hot-spots in public places were only the beginning, providing Wi-Fi on-the-go, a service that was typically limited to a few hundred feet from wherever the access point was hidden.

Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), a type of Internet Services Provider which provides its services exclusively over Wi-Fi and/or proprietary wireless technologies, are playing a pivotal role in connecting under-served communities to the Internet, with the Wi-Fi technologies they are relying upon to grow their networks changing dramatically with the latest revision of the protocol. In point of fact, WISPs are picking up customers that no other technology has proven to be as successful at acquiring cost effectively. See the BroadbandNow article, WISPs Are The Real Heroes in Bridging The Digital Divide, for more information.

As large as the North American cable footprint is, it doesn’t reach everyone (though does reach roughly 70% of US households). This is also true of the networks of the ILECs, CLECs and cell providers. To be clear, these limitations are not so much a limitation of the technology, rather these are the results of business decisions that take realistic Return on Investment (ROI) into consideration. For example, it generally takes much longer to receive a return on the investment for the capital expenditures necessary to reach a relatively small number of rural customers, places where the potential number of customers per mile might be fewer than two dozen, as compared to urban markets where there might be thousands of dwellings per square mile. Globally, the closest approximation of “full coverage” of a given geography goes to satellite and VSAT technologies, but these technologies have many shortcomings compared to Wi-Fi, proprietary wireless technologies and wire-line services that will be further detailed in a future posting comparing and contrasting access technologies.

Where the WISP story has proven to be particularly compelling is in providing services to a given community that is otherwise under-served by all other technologies, offered at a cost that is either comparable to or below the national average for offerings of similar capacity and performance. Favorable comparisons between Wi-Fi and wired services such as DSL, DOCSIS and PON even extend to situations where there is at least one service offering available from the local Service Provider but this offering’s cost is above (sometimes well above) the national average for a similar service, particularly after adjusting for local purchasing parity which considers factors such as median household income, a metric which can vary considerably from region to region.

While WISPs are nothing new, emerging almost concurrently with the advent of the original 802.11 standard (802.11-1997, with the first hardware becoming available the same year, 1997), there has never been a change to the standard as significant as those which have been incorporated into the most recent iteration of WiFi, allowing the protocol to perform considerably better as a last mile access technology. It probably doesn’t hurt that, while federal and state funding is injecting additional capital into the buildouts to bridge the “digital divide”, many communities still face lacking cost effective Internet service in their area. For more information on these initiatives, see FCC Connect America Fund, the USDA Rural Utilities Service and a state-level initiative in Colorado, The Broadband Fund.

Like the cellular industry with its 3GPP organization, 3rd Generation Partnership Project, and the cable industry’s CableLabs , the WISPs have comparable trade associations, such as WISPA and Wi-Fi Alliance that are pushing forward, advancing their industries. While these associations do not develop the Wi-Fi specifications themselves (the IEEE owns this function, see IEEE 802.11ax: Next generation wireless local area networks), they make their needs known to the IEEE 802.11 committee through their representatives, counting companies both large and small, vendors and Service Providers (SPs), among the committee membership. The WISPA organization focuses its resources on holding conferences twice a year, providing operational guidelines and resources for starting a WISP, as well as promoting dialogue between SPs, vendors and industry partners.  The Wi-Fi Alliance focuses their attention on training and certification of products against the IEEE Wi-Fi standards, an important function given the fact that the IEEE performs no compliance testing on its own.

It is important to note that the WISP customer base and associated revenues are estimated to double every five years, significant growth year over year for any provider, as reported in the Wispa News. In the article, Jim Shaeffler of the Carmel Group provides new data supporting this continued growth. Make no mistake, the Wi-Fi industry is poised for rapid growth, bolstered by federal and state funding and private investment, creating new opportunities for backhaul and other forms of partnership between the cable industry and WISPs. The technological dependencies are straightforward and well understood, with the cable industry already having inked similar deals with cellular providers for backhaul over the past several years. WISPs have found business models that have been demonstrated to work, with several notable failures from community and city-initiated models demonstrating what doesn’t work quite (for an example, read this ComputerWorld article.)

Some WISPs have begun providing alternatives to incumbent SPs relying on more costly technologies offering lower bit rates, including Satellite, 3G and 4G cellular technologies applied to fixed wireless deployments, demonstrating that Wi-Fi has cost efficiencies difficult to meet or exceed via other means. In WiFiNow’s blog post, the author provides an account of a WiFi network in Myanmar. He explains that, in Myanmar where a very high price/performance was needed, the only meaningful option was to build the network using Wi-Fi, proving it to be significantly less costly and higher performance than any of the other technologies the SP had evaluated, finding that their capital expenditures were roughly 5% of a fixed wireless solution using cellular technologies.

Enhanced Features of the Latest Revision of Wi-Fi Standard

Over the past several years, WISPs have benefited significantly from innovation in the Wi-Fi vendor ecosystem, using adaptations and advancements in RF transmission technologies from the cellular world that have substantially improved the limited range of Wi-Fi technology, replacing omnidirectional antenna with higher efficiency directional cone, horn and panel types, with vendors such as Ubiquiti, Mimosa, Cambium and RF Elements and others advancing the state of the art in antennae design for long-range, commercial-grade Wi-Fi.

With recent developments from these and several other vendors in this space, it has never been easier to expand service areas and aggregate capacity from the Access Points (APs) back to the central POP, a link that is no longer limited to conventional (and often costly) fiber solutions such as 10Gbit Ethernet delivered over a PON network via GPON or EPON. Most of these high-capacity wireless backhaul solutions utilize point to point connections, typically implemented with proprietary radios operating between 11GHz and 36GHz, and offering between 1Gbit and 20Gbps of capacity.

In addition to greatly improved RF components, the vendor ecosystem has responded to the WISPs by offering standalone software tools, sometimes bundling this software with their products, aiding the SP in the planning and installation of their equipment, as well as developing deployment scenarios that allow a WISP to grow their footprint with cost efficiency in mind. Combined with the latest specifications, the WISPs have never been in a better position to grow their networks aggressively while maintaining or increasing the bit rates offered to users.

Far more than a bump in the aggregate and per-user capacity, the latest revision of the Wi-Fi standard is the critical enabling technology allowing WISPs to build faster networks with far fewer radios, providing a price/performance jump that is unlike any previous iteration of the 802.11 specs. In addition, the new Wi-Fi standard makes better use of investments WISPs have already made in deploying improved antennae, vertical assets, etc.

The new version of Wi-Fi has been marketed under two interchangeable monikers to distinguish it from previous versions of the standard, one of which is “Max Wi-Fi” to indicate its increased performance, while the other marketing name simply indicates the iteration of the standard, calling it “Wi-Fi 6.” A short list of Max Wi-Fi / Wi-Fi 6’s improvements are shown in the table below.

The Convergence Point Between Cable and Wi-Fi

The cellular providers are already busy deploying equipment that is able to support the latest “5G” standard developed by the 3GPP called Release 15. 3GPP’s Release 15 was a remarkable achievement for the 3GPP organization in that it established, for the first time in the history of cellular, a singular technology in the form of LTE (Long Term Evolution), replacing the menagerie of options that existed previously. During the same time period that Release 15 was being developed, the cable industry and the Wi-Fi industry (via the IEEE) were moving ahead with their own higher-capacity, increased efficiency and reduced latency initiatives.

For the cable industry, enhanced services falls under the “10G” initiative (for more information see cablelabs.com/10g and 10gplatform.com). While somewhat derivative in its title, its an apt marketing term for the latest iteration of the DOCSIS 3.1 specifications, a standard which includes the new Full DupleX (FDX) and Low Latency DOCSIS (LLD) enhancements to the protocol as well as a host of other minor changes to the DOCSIS Security (SEC) specifications. DOCSIS FDX, as it is commonly called, is a technology designed to deliver roughly 10Gbit on both the downstream and upstream direction of the cable plant, providing operators with the ability to provide symmetric data services at multi-gigabit data rates. Previous versions of the DOCSIS standard were better suited to services which were asymmetric, with upstream bit rates that were considerably lower than the downstream bit rates due to significant differences in the available spectrum, among other reasons.

While the vast majority of residential customers simply won’t need or be able to cost justify a multi-gigabit symmetric link into their homes for the foreseeable future, what the “10G” DOCSIS FDX system provides is a broadly available, lower cost and latency-sensitive business service, providing a competitive advantage in cost effective backhaul to both cellular providers and WISPs. The lower cost of delivery over DOCSIS relative to dedicated fiber links providing a similar 1 to 10Gbit of capacity could prove essential to the expansion plans of the WISPs in scaling up their service footprints in rural and suburban markets.

Given the reach and breadth of the cable footprint within North America, there are clear synergies between the WISPs and cable operators that are as great, perhaps even greater, than the opportunities that were presented to the cable industry by the cellular providers. These opportunities extend to peering agreements and other arrangements that are of mutual benefit to both industries.

While there is significant work to be done in establishing relationships between the cable industry and the Wi-Fi industry, the opportunity for forging new alliances is ripening as new “Max Wi-Fi” or “Wi-Fi 6” equipment becomes available. Client chipsets and associated fixed-wireless CE devices will be introduced this year (2019) and next, while many commercial-grade APs are already available and have been since the end of 2018.

The cable industry is leaving money on the table with the WISPs, with these wireless providers dependent on cost-effective, high capacity Internet solutions to grow their business. In exchange, the WISPs not only become lucrative Internet capacity customers and peering partners, they directly bear the risks of offering services to rural, underserved markets, the kinds of risks that operators have unable or unwilling to take themselves.

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OAM Technology Consulting, with our deep knowledge and experience in the cable industry, can assist WISPs by providing guidance in negotiating with MSOs, making the introductions between operators and local WISPs and helping to build and manage these fledgling relationships.

Contact OAM Technology Consulting to learn more.