WISPs Are Helping Communities Stay Connected And Safe During The Crisis... And Beyond

Almost universally, COVID-19 and its associated stay-at-home orders challenged networks with crushes of Internet traffic. Big, medium and small networks; urban, suburban and rural – all experienced a massive shift in use as Americans, locked into a single spot for an indefinite amount of time, depended on the Internet to communicate with friends and families, go to work, learn, get healthcare, and generally ride out the storm.

Fixed wireless providers (a.k.a. WISPs) were no exception in serving the public’s needs during the health safety crisis. These generally small, rural companies use primarily unlicensed spectrum to deliver broadband to nearly 7 million residential and business customers throughout America. Not to be confused with mobile wireless technology, WISPs purchase Internet access, run that to a tower or other vertical structure (such as a grain silo or water tower), then shoot that data wirelessly to fixed receiver-antennas on houses and businesses, connecting a robust, two-way broadband connection.

Not surprisingly, WISPs have been busy during the crisis, seeing an average change of download traffic at peak of 43%; and upload at peak of 70%. To support this, 83% of WISPs upgraded their networks to better manage the new traffic dynamics. Importantly, no WISP buckled, as users changed their favorite apps from streaming and email to “Zoom” teleconferencing and distance learning. During the pandemic, WISPs were also on the frontlines of keeping their communities connected.

Some of this work was recently highlighted by FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in his inaugural Digital Opportunity Equity Recognition (DOER) program. WISPA members Midco, Starry and Triad Wireless were lauded by the Commissioner for demonstrating “a true commitment to serving communities through acts of substance and consequence, big and small, generosity and selflessness both during the pandemic and prior to the recent events that have changed our nation.”

What did they do?

Midco worked with the State of North Dakota and local school districts to deliver free Internet service for families to help kids stay “in” school. Starry created a budget $15 a month package, connecting communities across Boston, New York City, Denver, and Los Angeles with 30 Mbps service and no data caps or long-term contracts. And Triad Wireless launched its “Education Everywhere” program, which for $10 per month brought needy families Internet access in communities across Arizona.

All told 75% of America’s 2,000 plus WISPs helped out with some sort of free access, Wi-Fi hotspots, community connectivity or other broadband deployments to keep their local communities online and safe during the pandemic.

An example of the industry’s other “doers” include companies like Byhalia.net in Bellefontaine, OH, which set up a free Wi-Fi location at their local public school so kids in their rural area with limited or no Internet could get assignments via drive-up Wi-Fi. And, BPS Networks, located in Bernie, MO, which deployed nine free Wi-Fi hotspots for local school districts in SE Missouri, as well as a dedicated high-speed link for the local hospital’s COVID-19 pre-screening tents. Or, Portative Technologies in Corydon, IN, which deployed 10 free hotspots in the area’s parks, fire houses, parking lots and elsewhere in their county.

The FCC played an integral part in many of these connectivity efforts, too. More than 100 WISPs applied for and received an innovative, temporary 45 MHz assignment of 5.9 GHz spectrum from the Commission to rapidly boost and promote broadband connectivity. That band was “reserved” for the automotive industry two decades ago, but has gone essentially fallow, seeing little to no use since its inception. Because the spectrum sits adjacent to unlicensed providers in the 5 GHz band, it represented a perfect candidate to quickly increase capacity, alleviating some of “COVID-crunch” on WISP and Wi-Fi networks.

To this end, Amplex in Luckey, OH, used its 5.9 GHz spectrum to increase bandwidth by 50% across its suburban and rural network of 8,000 subscribers, greatly improving capacity not only for the equipment using the new spectrum, but also reducing congestion on the existing spectrum. And Nextlink, based in Hudson Oaks, TX, achieved less network interference by utilizing the 5.9 GHz band, allowing over 2,000 of its subscribers to upgrade their speed plans to higher levels than possible before.

WISPs’ underlying nimbleness made the effects of C-19 less devastating. But it also hints at something more powerful and lasting at work. While the U.S. economy significantly contracted during the crisis, WISP networks grew. Over 80% of WISPs added customers during the pandemic. Interestingly, however, COVID didn’t create this. Rather, it only accelerated the velocity of growth, which for the past several years has been about 15% annually.

How can this happen when other sectors remain flat or experience only meager growth?

First, WISPs often serve broadband-neglected communities in the digital divide – areas that have been left behind by legacy providers because they’re deemed too unprofitable to serve. Perhaps tragically, there’s a huge, nearly 20 million strong untapped market there, representing a lot of room to grow.

Second, though many WISPs provide fiber connectivity, too, the fixed wireless model can be rolled-out almost overnight and at about 15% of the cost of fiber, quickly providing a cost-effective and evolutionary tool to connect to the Internet where it was absent or deficient.

And third, they’re not beholden to a “mother-may-I” regulatory regime, enabling them to innovate without permission, more nimbly extending services to those who need it. It is the exact opposite of monopoly and franchise-driven plays, which work to limit service options, innovation and regulatorily mandated “growth.”

For many individuals in the rural and urban digital divide, WISPs are an essential lifeline, built to evolve, expand and scale to meet the needs of the markets they serve. This flexibility and industry “get ‘er done” ethos have allowed WISPs across America to help their communities stay connected and safe during the crisis. And beyond.

The WISP model helps more and more Americans thrive in good and in challenging times. Policymakers would do well to promote their broadband deployment model to continue this good and vital work.

This piece first appeared in TechDirt on November 6, 2020.