A WISP with Vision

By Gerry Blackwell

January 09, 2007

He has navigated federal, state, and local bureaucracies, runs an ISP association, and has built a WISP that's always a step ahead of the industry.

John Scrivner, president and CEO of Mt. Vernon Net, a wireless ISP in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, just east of St. Louis, is one of those salt-of-the-earth guys that every industry needs but not every industry is blessed with—a visionary, an activist, a tireless organizer and a successful entrepreneur.

Besides running his company, a pioneering WISP serving over 3,000 customers in and around Mt. Vernon, a city of about 16,000, Scrivner is also the current president of WISPA, the Wireless ISP Association, an organization he helped form. He is also a long-time critic of and lobbyist on behalf of the industry to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And he is a passionate advocate of broadband access for rural Americans.

"Had the FCC not dragged their feet for so long on making more spectrum and better quality spectrum more accessible to entrepreneurs, there would be no digital divide in this country today," he says. "The FCC under the current administration has ignored the spectrum starvation of rural America."

This WISP was born at an early age. Scrivner started Mt. Vernon Net in 1997 after a ten year career in the cable TV industry. As far back as the early 1990s, he tried to convince the local cable company to open up its network for broadband internet access, but was just ahead of the curve. Scrivner, along with partner Dan Hamilton, launched Mt. Vernon initially as a dialup ISP—it still has dialup customers—but the company built its first tower for fixed wireless broadband in 1998. Scrivner has been committed to wireless ever since.

"Fixed wireless is the logical option for rural America," he says. "And it will continue to be in my opinion. Building wired infrastructure in low-density areas just doesn't make good business sense."

That hasn't stopped lobbyists in the fiber-to-the-home camp from trying to co-opt government funding programs designed to help bridge the digital divide, though, Scrivner points out. Extending fiber into rural areas would only be viable with government funding, he argues. Wireless on the other hand can stand on its own—though it needs some relief on the regulatory side.

Initially Mt. Vernon Net mainly served business customers with the fixed wireless service. In the early days, they paid up to $1,000 for installation and $150 a month. Today, residential service, especially in rural areas, is the growth engine for the company. And prices are down to $300 for installation—which is sometimes waived—and $30 or $40 a month.

"The majority of revenues are now derived from wireless broadband," Scrivner says. "All our growth is coming from the extremely rural areas where there are no other broadband options. We can't build it fast enough to serve everyone."

Mt. Vernon covers all of four counties around the city and parts of another eight, using a mix of 900 MHz and Wi-Fi technology. In 1999, it worked on what Scrivner believes was one of the first, if not the first, public-private fixed wireless venture when it partnered with the city of Mt. Vernon. In return for rights of way to towers and other municipal structures, Scrivner's company built a fixed wireless virtual private network to link city offices.

It later added a series of Wi-Fi hot spots used by local police to log in to the city network from squad cars. "We have 30 to 40 locations around Mt. Vernon, so [officers] don't have to travel very far to get signal," he explains.

Three months ago, Mt. Vernon Net added a four-node public hot zone using Wi-Fi mesh infrastructure from Tropos Networks. The Tropos gear is mounted on poles owned by the local power utility, Amron. The agreement with Amron was made possible by funding from the State of Illinois Main Street grant program.

The hot zone covers the downtown area of the city. Users can log on and get free access to services provided by the city and Mt. Vernon Net, including events calendar, business and city services directories and an innovative mapping application that locates local businesses and city offices. They can also pay for access to the public Internet from the same portal.

The company may extend the Tropos network. "Eventually it could spread all over Mt. Vernon and provide ubiquitous Wi-Fi access," Scrivner says. "We're still figuring out how to roll it out in a way that pays the bills."

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