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September 12, 2006

WISP To The Rescue

WISP means wireless ISP, an Internet Service Provider to which you connect through radio rather than through a wire or fiber last mile.  WISPs MAY be part of the competitive answer to the uncompetitive duopoly of telecom and cable which make Internet access slower AND more expensive in the US than in many other countries.  A WISP DID pull me out of a connectivity vacuum left by the duopoly in South Hero, Vermont where we have a vacation camp.

Although technically satellite ISPs are a form of WISP, they don’t meet today’s connectivity needs except in desperate circumstance and it is impossible (not a word an entrepreneur uses lightly) to see how they will.  The problem is the speed of light.  It takes so long for a signal to get to a geostationary satellite and back that the service is absolutely unusable for VoIP, gaming, or watching video and ranges from incredibly frustrating to unusable for browsing complex web sites.

Terrestrial WISPs like my new best friends at GlobalNet send a signal from a ground-based radio to a small radio on your premises.  I’m getting a true 3meg both up and down with latency of well less than 100ms for $39.95/month.  Installation was $99.00 and I signed a one-year contract.  Old telecom nerds like me will note that the plan I’m on is giving me the equivalent of two T1s. There is also a $29.95 plan with 1.5meg down and 400Kps up. 

Unfortunately, I’ll still be paying for WildBlue satellite access as well for the remainder of my one year contract with them; but the better connectivity is worth the penalty.  To be fair, WildBlue didn’t promise to deliver more than they did; their website warns that VoIP and gaming aren’t supported; and they do point out that their penalty for excess use would be triggered by downloading videos.

GlobalNet’s solution for the east shore of Lake Champlain is clever.  They rented colocation space on an tower on a hill across the lake in Plattsburgh, NY. There’s good line of sight to that from anywhere along the Vermont side of the lake.  Even though I’m physically, over twelve miles from the GlobalNet repeater, I’m getting the full bandwidth they promised. 

Note that this service is significantly better than most DSL and comparable to most cable.  Also note that the service is symmetrical – same bandwidth for uploads as for downloads.  Most of us still download much more than we upload but that is changing.  Work-at-homers often have a lot to upload.  More and more of us are uploading photos and videos.  Home surveillance cameras accessible through the web are not uncommon.  Just like phone lines, some day we’ll always expect as much bandwidth up as we have down.

I’m hoping that GlobalNet’ll add VoIP services and effectively split Verizon’s outsized profit on voice with their customers. I’ve tested Skype with GlobalNet and the quality is great.  Also ran some generalized VoIP tests and everything came up roses.  Latency and jitter are both low.  Haven’t tried Vonage yet but will this weekend; I’m confident it’ll work.  So reasonably techie people can install their own VoIP using GlobalNet access now.

I went to see GlobalNet founder and president Mike Thompson to learn how he is succeeding in bringing affordable broadband to rural areas where others are failing. He founded GlobalNet as a dialup ISP in 1997 after owning two other communications businesses because he saw the Internet taking off and says they are now the largest locally-owned ISP in Vermont.

He understands that dial access is rapidly becoming obsolete; so he’s using the cash flow from that business to move his company and his customers to broadband.  Entrepreneur lesson: YOU’VE got to be the one to cannibalize your own business!  GlobalNet can’t offer DSL effectively because Verizon, which owns most of the access lines around here, rents them at wholesale for MORE than the retail price of DSL (another story for another day).  But GlobalNet may benefit in the long term from having leapfrogged DSL in bandwidth and in symmetrical access.  Their offer is worth buying even in places where Verizon DSL is available and competes equally with cable here. 

GlobalNet uses radios from Motorola and Trango.  Each of these uses proprietary standards.  This is not the long awaited WiMAX.  Mike says WiMAX may well not be a good solution for Vermont even when it is fully specified and available.  Part of its appeal is that it doesn’t need line of sight.  However, as Mike explains it, WiMAX gets around corners in cities by bouncing off hard walls.  The granite of the Green Mountains is covered by foliage at least some of the year.  Foliage will absorb instead of bouncing these signals.

Part of the way GlobalNet plans to reach hard-to-reach places is with community antennas.  If one house in a neighborhood has a decent view of one of GlobalNet’s main antennas with no more than a few trees in the way, it can become a hub for others who can see the first house but can’t see GlobalNet.  Mike says they’ll put up an arrangement like this where they have as few as five subscribers committed.  Under a different arrangement with a different ISP, we already have an antenna on our house in Stowe.  Hope we can do the same thing for the neighborhood in South Hero.

GlobalNet radios use unlicensed spectrum in the 900Mhz, 2.4Ghz, and 5.8Ghz ranges.  Haven’t tested yet in the rain but think they’ll be OK.  One of the things Mike says government could do to help facilitate the buildout of wireless access is create more unlicensed spectrum. Frequencies are going to become available as TV goes all digital and becomes less of a spectrum hog.  But don’t hold your breath: the government will probably continue to regulate this spectrum and sell it off at auction.  This raises a little money for the Treasury and helps maintain the duopoly because big players can bid high and tie up the spectrum.  They may never use it in places like Vermont with low population density but owning it still helps slow competition like GlobalNet.

Another thing Mike (who isn’t asking for subsidy or grants) says government can do to expand competition is to make it easy for competitive companies to rent space on new and existing towers or other places like utility poles where their radios can go.  Where the terrain is hilly, each radio serves only a relatively small area so it often doesn’t pay to build a new tower just for WISP service.  This is a reasonable request since even privately owned towers are a government granted monopoly in places like Vermont where the necessary permits and approvals are very hard to get. There is plenty of precedent for this sharing in the way that utility  poles have to be available for other wired services.

This is a good news story, certainly for Vermont, likely for other rural areas, and perhaps even for more urbanized areas where there is still not adequate competition.  In developing nations, wireless is already recognized as critical for new service.

This post is about WildBlue access.  It was written when I first got it.

This post is about problems with WildBlue and VoIP.  Note that WB does NOT now appear to be blocking VoIP – they’re just too slow for it to work right most of the time.

This post is why satellite service sucks in the rain.

This is a happy story about how my new WISP service lets me watch the Mets without paying a cable premium.

And this old post is about the antenna already on the roof of our house in Stowe.

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