A WISP with Vision

A WISP with Vision

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.”

 

Mt. Vernon Net’s latest initiative was participating in the FCC’s Auction 66. It bid on and won a license for exclusive use of spectrum in the 2110-2155 MHz band in a 12-county area around the city. Total population covered: about 335,000. The spectrum can be used for either cellular or fixed broadband, or both from the same tower. Scrivner plans to offer fixed and mobile broadband service.

“We haven’t decided yet which platform we’ll use,” he says. “The advances in cellular EVDO [1x Evolution-Data Optimized] with Revision A may make it more viable than mobile WiMAX.”

The decision won’t be made immediately. Scrivner doesn’t expect to begin building out the network until 2008. It will not be a slow, organic process this time like the growth of the company’s existing networks, but “a large-scale deployment,” he says. That, presumably, will require additional funding, which may explain the delay.

In the meantime, Mt. Vernon Net continues to be a thriving concern. It supports 11 employees, nine of them full time—and it has been profitable since year one. A key differentiator, Scrivner says, is that the company offers more than just bandwidth.

“We deliver specialized services that [customers] can’t get through commodity service providers,” he says. “They can call us up and get someone to come out and build them an advanced networking solution as opposed to just turning on the bandwidth.”

The Wireless Community Citizen

Where Scrivner finds the energy for his other activities is anybody’s guess. He helped form WISPA to provide an interface between the WISP industry and the FCC, and now serves as its president. “It took us a year with the involvement of about 100 people and [the expenditure of] a few thousand dollars to get everything in order,” he says. Today WISPA is a certified 501(C)6 non-profit trade association with about 500 paying and non-paying individual members and 65 companies represented, about 60 of them WISPs.

The association is active on a number of fronts. The most important issue as far as Scrivner is concerned is keeping up pressure on the FCC to free more spectrum for use by WISPs. “There is more unused spectrum in the U.S. than spectrum that is used—by a factor of 20 times,” he says. “An easy example is TV channel spectrum. In most places, no more than 20 percent of [the spectrum] is being used. And it’s ideally suited to the delivery of broadband service.”

The technology exists to ensure that broadband service providers using the spectrum would not interfere with television signals, Scrivner says. After an intensive lobbying effort, not just by WISPA but by heavy-hitters such as Cisco, Microsoft, and IBM, the FCC agreed to make the spectrum available for use by WISPs after 2009, when the transition to digital television is complete.

We Need Regulatory Relief

“I’m glad that we’re making headway,” he says. “But making headway and having access to spectrum are two different things. We still operate under what I consider a very backward policy.”

The power output restrictions on wireless equipment used in unlicensed bands is another problem for rural WISPs. They have to contend with greater distances and, often, more interferers, such as trees. The power output restrictions mean they have to deploy more radios and antennas to reach customers, which reduces their ability to build profitable businesses.

“I’m making money,” Scrivner says. “But I’m also telling 30 percent to 50 percent of the people who call us that we can’t get them signal.”

Another problem is rival service providers interfering with each others’ networks in the unlicensed bands, reducing service quality for customers and making it more difficult for any of them to make a go of it. “We need to be able to transmit at higher power and we need some access to exclusive use of spectrum without spending billions of dollars on licenses,” Scrivner argues.

He admits he may not have widespread support yet for his visionary solution to the latter problem. Scrivner’s idea is to assign rights to unlicensed spectrum much as the U.S. government distributed land in the west in the late 19th century. “If you settle this 40 acres and work it and grow things and maintain it for so long, the ground becomes yours,” he says of the land rush.

The same could be done with spectrum. Service providers could apply for rights to build a tower and offer service in an area, and perhaps pay a fee. Then if they prove they’re offering a good service that is in the public interests, they eventually get permanent exclusive rights to the spectrum in that area. The registration process could all be done online, he suggests.

It sounds like a fine idea, although it obviously wouldn’t work in areas where there are already multiple service providers sharing spectrum. But we’re quibbling. At least Scrivner has a vision, has ideas, solutions—and the energy and commitment to make them heard.

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