It's Easier to Build WISP if You're Already an ISP

By Alex Goldman

September 25, 2006

An ISP in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains found it had an advantage when it made the decision to add wireless broadband.

Sometimes when a company contacts us about their product and explains that they really know our site, we ask them to introduce us to an appropriate customer. That's what we did when Chico, Calif.-based Digital Path called us up. They introduced us to a WISP you'll want to know about called Direct Connect, based in Shingle Springs, Calif.

Founded in 1996, the company began to sell DSL in late 2000 and early 2001. More recently, Ken Garnett, president and CEO, purchased the company from its founders. He brought the company into the WISP business a year ago.

The company has also been doing webhosting and web design for some time, and has a reasonable NOC, a few thousand feet of office space and rack space combined.

A Choice to Make
Garnett says he looked at four or five equipment providers before selecting Digital Path. He says that Digital Path provided reasonably priced equipment and a vital network management system. But the most important qualification was the company's attentiveness to him as a customer, a virtue which he, in turn, says is vital to the success of Direct Connect.

"They were very responsive," he says. "They paid more attention to me than anybody else, walking me through my questions. That's half the battle. The other half is their infrastructure monitoring. They enable us to monitor and maintain the network—it's not easy to put together on your own on a multi-vendor network."

In just about every equipment (hardware and software) choice an ISP makes, this issue arises: should the company select a single vendor's solution or use pieces from multiple vendors? In theory, a single vendor provides better control and more features but at the cost of "vendor lock-in"—you cannot switch after you buy. In theory, using products from multiple vendors makes the ISP less reliant on any one. In practice, it depends on what you're buying.

Digital Path's NetMon.NMS network management system allows an administrator in the NOC to see the status of every AP, CPE, and battery backup on the network.

So are batteries a problem? "It's not an issue for us. If you get the alert in time, it's not an issue."

The System
Digital Path's architecture is hub and spoke (product list here). Each AP uses 2.4 GHz spectrum to connect to CPE and 5.8 GHz for backhaul. The company says its products can operate in many bands, but is only FCC certified for the 2.4, 4.9 licensed, 5.3, 5.5, and 5.8 GHz bands. However, in the U.S., we suspect most WISPs will use 2.4 GHz for subscriber connections (both 802.11b and 802.11g are supported) and 5.8 GHz for backhaul.

The company offers two kinds of backend radios: the Gateway and the Repeater. The Gateway is placed at the hub, and starts at $3,249.95 (plus $4,495.95 for a Management Server and $4549.95 for VoIP). The repeaters start at just over $1,000 plus $409.05 for a Single Power Box.

CPE starts at $199 for outdoor antennas and $120 for indoor.

Direct Connect does not offer VoIP, but companies deploying the Digital Path architecture can choose to offer VoIP.

Deployment
The ISP is in a hilly area, Garnett says, describing it as, "the foothills of the Sierra Mountains."

The company has no need of towers, using repeaters at homes and businesses, some them on hillsides. "Sometimes the side of a hill has good visibility to the other side of the valley."

LOS is important in choosing sites. "Every repeater needs LOS to another repeater."

Strategy
Garnett says the ISP's strategy is to deliver good service. Direct Connect tries to be the best WISP, not the cheapest. He's proud that he doesn't force customers to sign up for a full year. "If you offer good price-performance, there's no need to lock in the customer."

The customer stays happy if you offer good service. "We are an excellent service organization in terms of answering the phones and taking care of problems. We're a company that's been around for ten years and we have a good reputation."

Has the dialup business made it easier to build the WISP? "Oh yes. Those lines of business provide us the income that allow us to go off in another direction. I cannot imagine trying to build a WISP from scratch."

It's important to build positive word of mouth by supporting the community as well. Garnett says Direct Connect sponsors local sports teams, 4-H programs, and donates service to local fire departments.

He's particularly proud of the fire departments. "They go from slow dialup to really high speed internet and suddenly they can do things that the fire departments in the towns are doing."

Job satisfaction
Garnett says he bought the ISP (yes, through a broker) because he wanted to move out of San Francisco, and because it is located in a beautiful, growing area. He says he drove through the area regularly on the way to ski destinations, and knew that it was growing.

He was surprised to find that the area's broadband options were few. "A lot of folks move up here with communications expectations that are not being met."

That adds up to a good business with room to grow in a place that's nice to be in. "A lot of people move here to get away from the city. We're 150 miles from the Bay Area. A lot of people here are fleeing the crowds and expense and coming back to nature."

Article courtesy of ISP-Planet.

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