Wireless in the Rockies

By Alex Goldman

October 13, 2003

Deploying antennas in areas where the mountain goats roam, Amigo.net faces unusual challenges. A relationship with one antenna manufacturer gave the WISP access to the latest technology.

Ken Swinehart, founder and president of Amigo.net, has been in the business for some time. His mountainside ISP, based in Alamosa, Colo. (pop. 8,000), had a rocky start. He parted ways with Rocky Mountain Internet (RMI) in 1997, getting the local business while RMI kept the backbone. The switchover, whose glitches are described in this article did not go well initially, although Swinehart appears to have had the last laugh as RMI has gone through tough times.

RMI tried to get back into the provider business, but ended up changing its name and selling its customers to EarthLink. It now focuses on managed services.

Swinehart, meanwhile, has continued to build a facilities-based network in a part of Colorado that the ILEC refuses to serve without government subsidies. He remembers sitting around a table with his co-workers, brainstorming a name in 1997. They came up with "Amigo Net" which seemed friendly (amigo means "friend" in Spanish).

Today, the ISP has grown. With about 6,000 dialup subscribers and 700 wireless broadband subscribers, Amigo.net is bigger than many but smaller than the national players. Swinehart says, "in some rural areas, we're the biggest. We sometimes get a call [for wireless broadband] where Qwest cannot serve a T-1."

The company also provides webhosting, and offers DSL but finds that many customers who initially request DSL prefer wireless when they come to understand how Qwest delays the provisioning process. That makes wireless the key to revenue growth.

Although Swinehart has tried equipment from Alvarion, Western Multiplex (now part of Proxim), Teletronics, and others, he settled on Trango. "We found Trango at ISPCON 2001 in Las Vegas. We were one of their first customers, which meant at the time that we got their beta equipment. I met the CEO and the VP, and I've got a good relationship with them. I buy 100 end user units at a time."

So far, he is installing around 70 users per month, but Swinehart hopes to be installing 100 each month soon.

Climbing mountains, competing with Qwest
He faces the problems that ISPs face, and on top of those, he has to deal with his local environment. Like every ISP, he has a complaint about phone company billing. "There's so much turnover at the ILEC that there's no consistency in dispute resolution. We need to explain each time that the billing is wrong, and even then it never gets fixed. Recently, we have started to get some problems resolved, but we've been billed for services that were never in place, and also for services that were cancelled up to 2 years ago. Then they overbill you on the service you do have."

Now that he's deployed successfully, big companies are starting to notice. "Qwest is coming in with DSL, and a local cable company called Resident bought some cable systems from AT&T Comcast."

Added to the cares of an ISP are the worries of a WISP operator. "We tried 2.4 GHz but settled on 5.8 GHz. We ditched 2.4 GHz completely, in part because everyone has equal priority over the air link and if one customer is a business and the other is a residence, you want to provide different levels of service."

Some customers don't believe there's a difference between 2.4 GHz service and 5.8 GHz service. "If a prospective customer has already tried wireless, and it was 802.11b 2.4 GHz service, and they had problems, it's difficult to sell them 5.8 GHz broadband."

Remote locations require built-in redundancy. "We put spares at locations serving many people. If something happens, the radio can cut over. We also keep spares on our shelves. Some ISPs don't, but you simply cannot wait two weeks for new equipment. In addition, we have 24 hour paging support for major customers."

Providing wireless service across the state requires access to electrical contractors in every town served. Swinehart says that good contractors have been very helpful. Some have many crews, and can cope with surges in Internet demand. In other cases, they have taught Amigo.net how to comply with electrical code in unusual cases, such as those water tower installations.

Wireless POPs are expensive. Swinehart says he budgets $5,000 for a new tower site. "The cabling alone can cost $1,000 for shielded outdoor cable."

Some tower owners require specific contractors. "I had to hire one guy for $100 per hour because it was written into the contract for that water tower that he was they only guy allowed to work on the tower."

On top of those worries, add the Rocky Mountains. "Many of our antennas are on 12,000 foot peaks. From there, we shoot microwave [5.8 GHz] down into valleys. If I have a water tower location in a town, I can probably reach everyone from there."

He then uses up to six antennas on each water tower, because each Trango antenna covers 60 degrees (horizontal).

Wind adds problems. "Wind can cause static on bare copper used in power lines. We have to put on power conditioners before the UPS."

Finally, you need access to special equipment. "We can reach most sites with regular snowmobiles, but it's also good to have a friend with a SnoCat. I have one site that got so much snow, I couldn't reach it for three months."

Of course, all of these environmental problems are barriers to competition, who would have to learn, as Swinehart did, how to overcome them. Swinehart's years of local service give him an advantage in his home markets, where he now has name recognition. He grew up in Colorado, and says high school friends have been a great source of contacts.

But he worries about the political resources Qwest has that are denied small business. "Major providers get preferential treatment. They wax the pockets of a lot of the state representatives and even the governor. I cannot understand why the politicians would stand by them, but Qwest does give the maximum allowed contributions. Even local economic councils are biased towards Qwest."

Taking action against a mountain of troubles
Swinehart has taken action in the past. "I ran for state rep in 2000 and was beaten by an incumbent financed by Qwest." The defeat was particularly surprising in a conservative state because Swinehart's opponent was, according to this article, someone "who should qualify for an endangered-species listing because he's about the only labor Democrat left in Colorado."

Nevertheless, Swinehart is moving out to face the competition. "We need to learn more about marketing, and about competition in new markets. Here in rural areas, everybody knows us."

The name "amigo.net" is useful in the Southern portion of the state, which is increasingly bilingual. "We advertise on Spanish language radio and newspapers with a tradeout. We trade Internet for airtime. A few people have said bad things about our name. I guess there's prejudice everywhere, and it's just a small portion here in Colorado. I don't want to repeat what they said."

Colorado offers Amigo.net room for growth and much to fear, which makes the Colorado market not that different from the rest of the US, except for needing the SnoCat.

Swinehart started with many advantages. He has local connections. He worked for the state electric company in a department working on microwave telephone systems. With all those advantages, he remains a small- to mid-sized ISP. But if he hits that target of 100 new broadband users per month, the future will be very bright (though covered in snow).

Reprinted from ISP Planet.


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