Two ISPs on Cambria Connected: In The Stix and Digital Razor

By Alex Goldman

June 18, 2008

Two typical, but very different ISPs, are representative of the ISP industry as a whole.

Three ISPs are serving customers, as of this month, on the network of Cambria County in Pennsylvania. For more on the network, called Cambria Connected, see CONXX Builds a Network for Cambria County.

[ISP-Planet] interviewed the owners of two ISPs. Robert Dillion, owner of In The Stix broadband is a normal WISP owner. He's young, eager, and growing a business that started on a tower on his parents' property.

Mike Burkett, co-founder of Digital Razor is a veteran of the ISP business. He was part of the management team of an ISP in 1996 and co-founded Digital Razor in 1999 as a Web host.

In The Stix

There are thousands of Wireless ISPs (WISPs) across the U.S., many of them with fewer than 100 customers. They started up in backyards and homes in places that have no broadband service. The typical proprietor is either a college kid who cannot live at home without broadband or a retired person (usually from the tech industry) who has moved into a rural town and, also, cannot live without broadband. Robert Dillion has been in business as In The Stix broadband for two years.

"I started out serving my family and friends," he says. His home is Nicktown, PA, population 1,021.

The Web site for In The Stix is the bare bones, but it does have the two things every ISP must: a good AUP and TOS.

He has one tower, on his parents' property, that he says is high enough to serve a three-mile radius. He says that foliage is a greater obstacle than the mountains.

"We're able to get through better than I thought we would, but some I thought we could serve, we couldn't get to. One lady started crying on the phone because we couldn't get it to her," says Dillon.

With a service area of about 400 to 450 families, some of whom he cannot reach, Dillion has signifant market penetration, about 10 to 20 percent. All of this, while working part-time on the business, mostly evenings and weekends. We asked him a few questions about his WISP:

When did you first hear about Cambria Connected?

"I first talked with CONXX about a year ago, when they were talking about doing a deal with Cambria County. I learned more when they talked to Verizon."

Do you own any equipment?

"I purchase Alvarion equipment to connect to Cambria Connected. Cambria Connected offers bulk pricing to ISPs through the Alvarion Comnet program."

Has Cambria Connected changed the business?

"My wife is more enthusiastic about In The Stix now, with Cambria Connected, and propsective customers are more confident in my service. I have now formed an LLC."

Won't your business grow fast on day one of Cambria Connected?

"The business will quadruple before too long."

So will you go full-time, or hire people?

 "I hope to move to full-time on In The Stix. I might bring on subcontractors, but not employees. I see this as a long term opportunity. As a one man shop with a home office, I have low overhead. The business is debt free, personally financed."

Rural network builders say the network will keep young people from leaving and bring business to the county. Are you seeing this?

"I do see the looks on the kids' faces when I install broadband, and then I see the look on the bigger kids faces! The parents are just as excited about it."

Digital Razor

Mike Burkett, co-founder of Digital Razor, has a story similar to many ISP veterans but with one key difference. While most ISPs founded in 1999 began by offering dialup, Digital Razor started out as a Web host and marketing consulting firm, becoming a full service ISP in 2002. The company is based in Indiana, PA, population 14,895, in Indiana County, which is adjacent to Cambria County.

Digital Razor now has three data centers and acquired seven more in an acquisition that [ISP-Planet will] write up this summer. Here are exerpts from our interview:

So, the core offering is high touch business consulting?

"We always offered dialup, and we used to have more residential than business customers. We always had a higher ARPU from business customers. We now have more business than residential customers. Verizon's $15 per month DSL doesn't hit everywhere. Dialup has been declining, and the SMB market is strong."

With Cambria Connected, Digital Razor gets a larger network footprint in Cambria County. The company already has a VoIP offering, and Burkett is pleased with Cambria Connected's QoS capabilities.

"We know this network won't go away because if it did, the emergency network would go away, and that cannot happen," he says. In turn, prospective customers in Cambria County can trust that Digital Razor won't go away.

When did you first hear about Cambria Connected?

"I ran into the CONXX people at ISPCON three years ago in Baltimore. It was probably right after they first started there. We started talking with them again about nine months ago."

Burkett expects Cambria Connected to be better than the phone company, but that's not saying much.

"I am 100 percent elated to not have to deal with the phone company for any of this. We're converting our DSL, residential, and even T-1 and higher customers to this network. With the phone company, you have to rely on whether or not they feel like fixing it today. With Cambria Connected, I know where their office is, and if I have to knock on their door, I can. With Verizon, I can be on the phone for two hours before I get to talk to someone who might understand what I'm talking about."

What about CLECs?

"CLECs are a problem, but it's not the CLEC's fault. We know about this. We're agents for Verizon and for the CLECs in the area. It's the same service level across the board. I'd have been out of business years ago if I'd deliverd the low service level that you get from these companies. It's frustrating when something's broken and I have to rely on them to fix it."

Burkett says he's eager to start adding new customers. He has 20 business installs and at least 25 residential to do on day one, everything from basic service up to and including 20 Mbps. Furthermore, his sales database has a long list of prospects (some of which will require site surveys).

Until now, Digital Razor has done wholesale wireless. The company is training installers, and hopes to get some training from CONXX.

It's a significant positive change for your company?

"Yes! We're gearing up quite a bit. We've invested time and money. We believe that it's going to be very, very good. I commend Cambria County for its foresight."

The government will be able to deliver new applications to consitutents. New applications very considerably. Burkett has three young children, and is pleased to be able to give them lunch money over the Internet.

Digital Razor has towers in an adjacent county that can see the Cambria Connected network.

The people at CONXX feel the network won't realize its full potential until ISPs are delivering valuable applications over it, and it looks like Burkett, with his hosting background, will be the first ISP to do it. Digital Razor already plans to deliver VoIP, and has a remote backup service for small business.

"The big draw for business customers was services. When we started doing remote backup years ago, there weren't many people doing it. Now we've got more experience than our competitors, and our new service is disaster recovery."

The future of Digital Razor, he says, is also about delivering services.

"It's not about how you get on the Internet. It's more about what's on the Internet."

Article adapted from ISP-Planet.



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