Swift Fox Blog

Dec 2013

Considering a new business idea?  How about a WISP?

Considering a new business idea? How about a WISP?

Who needs you the most? Places without broadband at all!

When most folks think of ISPs, they think of the cable company and the phone company – and they don’t have a great reputation.   As an independent Wireless Internet Service Provider, you have the chance to challenge that – and provide an awesome service for a reasonable price.  But people will be skeptical at first, or they might be on a contract and can’t easily switch providers.

When starting a WISP the first thing to go after is the highest density of homes that have no option at all besides dial-up or satellite.  To be honest, there aren’t many of these markets left – they’re becoming very rare.  But if you can find this mythical market, you have it easy.  Nobody likes dial-up, and satellite is laggy and expensive.

How do you find these places?  Unfortunately, the best option still seems to be to drive around and ask people.  Ask at the local computer store, gas stations, or if you have friends in the area.  If people are stuck with dial-up, they’ll be very excited to help you start a WISP bringing broadband to their area.

Do not trust the excited local who insists there are no options in their area.  They have not done all the research and even if they claim “I know everyone!” they may not have been asking the right questions or they may have honest but ulterior motives.  Where to open coverage is one of the most important decisions faced by an ISP, don’t cut corners or leave it up to others to do the research.

Competing against another WISP:  Doing it better for cheaper

More likely than the above, you’ll be in a situation where there is already another WISP provider – but they aren’t doing a great job.  Maybe they deployed 802.11b Tranzeo gear back in the day and they never upgraded, or maybe they are charging $79/mth for 1.5Mbit, or maybe they take two weeks to do a service call.  If there’s a provider in town that nobody likes, there’s an opportunity for you to do a great job and make people happy.

This is surprisingly common, because a provider in a monopoly situation doesn’t really have much incentive to keep things running well – they’ll get paid either way.  So it’s your job to keep them honest!

Entering a market like this can be a bit more expensive, because it’ll take time for you to win people over (people hate switching providers, it’s a big hassle) – but eventually the word of mouth will spread that there’s a better WISP option, and you will be the dominant provider.

If you can afford it, offer a free installation and no contract.  This means that someone can “try out” your service for no risk at all – and if you are doing your job right, you’ll wow them into staying.   Keep your service quality high with intensive client-level network monitoring.

Directly competing against Cable/DSL in towns/cities:  Probably not a wise idea

As much as we’d love to be able to “take on the big guys” – it’s usually not possible for purely technical reasons.  If you’re in a market where there’s DOCSIS 3 cable available, they can usually offer 50mbit or 100mbit packages – bundled with television, for a far lower price than you can hit with wireless.

Even if you could attempt to match them on price, you won’t be able to on speed – you have to share the wireless spectrum with everyone else, and even if you have a tower on every block (expensive and impossible to get permits for in a city) – you still don’t have the available bandwidth that cable does.  It’s just a limitation of the technology.

Also, you will be up against an enormous marketing budget from the big guys.   No matter how well-known you are, when someone moves into a new house the first people they call for Internet service are the cable and phone companies.  Only after they can’t get service from them do they start asking around for alternatives.

That said, if you’re providing WISP service in a rural environment – you don’t have much to fear from cable/phone companies coming in and competing with you.  Cable only works where they have the cable infrastructure installed – and DSL only works for a fixed distance from the phone exchange – so it’s almost never worth the cost for them to bring service to far-flung farms and acreages.

Topography:  Makes or breaks the business model

A big limitation of WISP technology is that you always want to have “line of sight” to your towers.  This means that if you were to stand on the customer’s rooftop with a good pair of binoculars, you could see your tower without any obstructions.   If you can guarantee this, you can easily get great speeds to that customer.

Unfortunately, some rural areas have dense trees or hilly terrain.   There’s no easy answer for these.   Sales people might try to sell you “non line-of-sight” equipment in the 900MHz band, but in reality these are often very slow, or have very low capacity.  If your market can handle 2mbit Internet, or you can make a business model work with only 20 clients per tower – you might be able to get away with this type of equipment, but it’s not an easy business to do well at.  900mhz has serious limitations on scalability, just when your business starts to get off the ground you will be crippled by lack of frequencies.  ISPs have failed for this reason.  900mhz sounds great on paper but can really back your business into a corner later.  It is best to avoid it.

Luckily, there’s a lot of tools out there (such as the free tool Radio Mobile, or towercoverage.com ) that allow you to pick spots on a map and plot coverage based on topography (anywhere on earth) and land cover data (in the USA).   Quite often you’d be surprised how difficult terrain can be mitigated by a few strategically placed towers.

In summary, starting a WISP in the right market with solid planning can provide you with a very lucrative business opportunity putting you in charge of your destiny and it can grow rapidly. If you do decide to pursue this as a new business venture, feel free to drop us a line. Our years of experience starting many WISPs has given us insight into the best possible ways to set up a WISP operation, so we can help provide advice to make your WISP successful.


Author: Matt Beaton