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Capex, Opex, Lease-up Deliver Boost to ROI for Vertical Bridge

By Don Bishop

The largest private owner and operator of communications infrastructure in the United States, by its own account, Vertical Bridge manages more than 300,000 properties. The company’s vice president of tower development, Ariel Rubin, said that Vertical Bridge builds towers with a focus on increasing its return on investment (ROI). Rubin spoke during an AGL Virtual Summit in June at the session, “Increasing ROI at the Tower,” moderated by Spencer Kurn, an analyst who leads coverage of U.S. towers for New Street Research.

Ariel Rubin (left), vice president of tower development at Vertical Bridge, and Spencer Kurn, an analyst at New Street Research.

Tower construction affects Vertical Bridge’s capital expense (capex), as reflected in the cost to build the sites, and affects the company’s operating expense (opex), Rubin said. Controlling those expenses helps to raise the company’s ROI.

“On the capex side, we have a great network nationwide of partners that help us not only with the services side, which include everything from site acquisition to engineering services and environmental services, but also one of our largest costs, steel and the towers we procure,” Rubin said. “The network of vendors that provide us with steel and being able to have ready access to sites anywhere in the country have been helpful at keeping some of those costs down.”

Construction is another large capex component, Rubin explained. He said Vertical Bridge has networks of regional contractors and nationwide contractors that help the company when it needs more volume in certain regions or when it needs more specialized contractors in some other markets.

When it comes to capex, Rubin said, “the less you spend, the better your returns will be. More importantly, as we look at ROI and how it’s tied to tower cash flow, the more we can keep of the rent we collect on a site is directly reflected on the return on that particular site. Thus, the operating expenses that each site incurs are one place where we looked and made sure to focus on as we build new sites.”

Rubin identified six items of opex that primarily affect tower cash flow: ground rent, maintenance, utilities, monitoring, insurance and taxes.

“The largest is ground rent,” Rubin said. “We always look to have long-term rights, or purchase the land, or have long-term easements on a property. That helps us control some of the ground rent costs that we incur.”

Vertical Bridge must maintain its sites properly, and it acquires sites with maintenance in mind. Although sites with long access roads or otherwise designing sites that would be expensive to maintain, although perhaps not costing significantly more initially, affect the company’s cash flow because those sites would need to be maintained for years and years, Rubin said. As a result, Vertical Bridge takes maintenance into consideration when designing and building the sites.

As for utilities, Rubin said Vertical Bridge typically does not have high utility costs, but it pays for tower lighting and some power accounts.

“We’ve worked with federal agencies on eliminating nonflashing lights,” Rubin said. “As an example, we were going to LED lights that not only help us reduce some of our opex costs and bring down our utility bills, we’re also helping reduce bird collisions and reducing some of the effects that our towers have in the environment. We’ve seen cost savings from $500 to $1200 to $1300 a year in power bills. We make sure that as sites are being put up, utility costs are minimized for years to come.”

Rubin said that monitoring and insurance costs are somewhat more difficult to control on a site-by-site basis. He said Vertical Bridge’s size helps the company to negotiate, because of the volume of sites.

“If somebody could figure out how to pay less taxes . . .” Rubin mused. “That’s something that we’re subject to. That’s another expense that affects our tax control framework and our return on a particular site.”

Session moderator Kurn said that controlling expenses is one side of the ROI equation — the other, improving tower lease-up.

Rubin then spoke about Vertical Bridge’s large portfolio of  broadcast towers and tall towers, aside from what would be called the traditional towers for carriers. He said Vertical Bridge has been able to make the broadcast towers available for use by wireless carriers.

Meanwhile, Rubin said, the broadcast towers typically have a significant amount of land beneath them, and that is where edge data centers come in as additional lease-up.

“We have enough ground space to not only offer for edge computing, but also solar and some other applications,” Rubin said. “We to work with government entities and wireless internet service providers (WISPs). WISP rollouts are more regional, and we see groups of activity here and there. It’s a mix that continues to grow, but nothing significant at least on the new tower development side. Once the towers are up, this is where a lot of these new opportunities are coming into play.”

Vertical Bridge capitalizes on the edge computing opportunity with existing infrastructure and with what Rubin called edge-to-suit.

“We work not only with the direct carrier contacts that we have at Vertical Bridge, but also we have partnered with our sister companies. DataBank and EdgePresence, and are able to use our existing infrastructure and leverage that from some of the contacts that they bring where we can find some synergies in optimizing the use of our assets,” Rubin said.

“The second part is what we like to call edge-to-suit, which is leveraging our site acquisition teams and development teams to identify, lease, permit and build out to your power and fiber-ready location. It’s kind of like a build-to-suit, but just for edge services. We have the team in place. We think about longer term, making sure we have the ability to put up a tower if needed, but providing that service to our carrier, contacts, just for the edge solution that they need. We have the knowledge.We don’t necessarily have to go put up a tower on day one, but it’s a lot of the same skill set that we already have that we’re using on a daily basis. Using our existing infrastructure and our existing knowledge —that’s where the opportunity for us is key.”

For the June 8 AGL Virtual Summit, Total Tech sponsors included Raycap, Valmont Site Pro 1, Vertical Bridge and B+T Group. Tech sponsors included Alden Systems and Aurora Insight. Viavi Solutions sponsored the keynote address. Additional sponsors included Gap Wireless, NATE, VoltServer and WIA.

J. Sharpe Smith programmed the Summit, and Kari Willis hosted. AGL Media Group has scheduled the next AGL Virtual Summit for Sept. 8. To register, click here.

Don Bishop is executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine.


WISP Picks Telrad Networks for LTE Network Upgrade in Iowa

Evertek, a WISP that serves rural Iowa, has selected the Telrad LTE solution to upgrade their wireless network. The LTE upgrade will providing existing subscribers with higher throughput packages, as well as improve coverage to reach more customers in rural areas.

Evertek is using the Telrad high-power BreezeCOMPACT 3000 base station in the 2.5 GHz BRS spectrum. Newly deployed sites are using the LTE solution while existing infrastructure is being upgraded. A majority of Evertek subscribers are residential, the company also serves many businesses and supports public safety, with connectivity to police cars, and precision farming, with equipment-monitoring and automation.

It’s a Watershed Moment for Wireless ISPs

By Justin Pollock

Wireless internet service providers are facing both their most significant opportunities and challenges since the industry was born more than a quarter of a century ago.

For the last quarter century, wireless internet service providers (WISPs) have operated in relative obscurity, delivering broadband and voice service to homes and businesses in rural areas. These are the nearly forgotten territories on the wrong side of the digital divide, in places too sparsely populated for cable multiple system operators (MSOs) and telephone companies to bother with. Unfortunately, existing under the radar isn’t the best route to self-preservation today in an environment where spectrum is an increasingly precious commodity, and everyone wants his share. Fortunately, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the industry’s advocacy group, recently stepped up its marketing game to match its lobbying efforts in Washington. This didn’t come a moment too soon.

If you are unfamiliar with WISPs, perhaps a little history is in order. But first, a primer on how they work. A WISP is a fixed wireless access (FWA) provider that uses point-to-point microwave or millimeter-wave links between its towers for coverage extension and backhaul, and point-to-multipoint links from the towers to the customer premises. In addition to residences, they also serve businesses, municipal governments and other entities, sometimes in urban environments in addition to the more usual rural environments.

The data stream to the WISP can originate from dedicated circuits such as T1, T3 or DS3 carrier system lines, fiber-optic cable or, when none of these is obtainable, multiple microwave hops from somewhere else. The data stream provided by the source is then sent to a high point in the coverage area, such as a building, existing tower or whatever else is available. The subscriber receives the signal using an outdoor directional antenna bore-sighted at the tower (see Photo 1).

Photo 1. The model UB24EWIFIDBI elliptical reflector antenna is typical of those used at customer locations. It measures only 18.5 inches x 23 inches.

The signal captured by the antenna is typically sent to a radio (essentially a weatherized access point) from one of the major manufacturers that is mounted with the antenna. The radio delivers the signal via power over Ethernet (PoE) to a computer and then a Wi-Fi access point or both, for distribution throughout the home or business. At this point, the scenario is no different than broadband delivered any other way. Nearly every WISP also offers voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony as part of its service packages. Downlink data rates range from kilobits to tens of megabits per second, based on what the customer needs or can afford. Even higher data rates are also sometimes offered on a custom basis.

WISPs have traditionally used unlicensed radio-frequency spectrum in the industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio-frequency bands, first because the government charges nothing to use the frequencies, and second because unlicensed spectrum is readily available without the entanglements and high costs associated with licensed spectrum. The frequencies used by WISPs have followed developments in Wi-Fi standards, quickly moving from 915 MHz to 2450 MHz with the standardization of IEEE 802.11b, then to 5 GHz, and today to a combination of both. Operation is also conducted at 3650 MHz, and soon through shared usage of the 3.5-GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, the rules for which are currently being disputed by WISPA, for reasons discussed later. Other frequencies include the TV white spaces (channels not used by TV stations in various geographic areas) between 500 MHz and 700 MHz (also shared), and 2.5 and 3.6 GHz for Long Term Evolution (LTE) high-speed wireless communications, in some cases.

In the Beginning
In many ways, the origin of the WISP industry resembles that of community antenna television (CATV), now commonly referred to as cable TV. As television became a must-have in the 1950s and 1960s, reception in some places was difficult if not impossible for communities either too far from the broadcast tower or obscured from a line-of-sight path by mountains or some other inhibitor of RF energy. To solve the problem, some enterprising minds mounted high-gain directional antennas at the highest point in the area and fed the captured TV signal to nearby homes and later to entire communities with coaxial cable as it still is done, with the help of fiber, today.
WISPs emerged as a means of delivering internet access and VoIP voice service rather than over-the-air TV in remote places where it has always been too expensive for cable and telephone companies to build the infrastructure required to serve a few hundred or even a thousand customers. In contrast, a WISP’s cost to serve a customer is a small fraction of this, which effectively makes their service possible, if not immensely profitable.

The industry got its start with Lawrence “Brett” Glass, an engineer with an MSEE degree from Stanford, known for designing integrated circuits (ICs) for Texas Instruments in Palo Alto, California, and known as a prolific contributor to computer trade publications. Glass decided to trade the frenetic density of Silicon Valley for the wide-open vistas of Wyoming, specifically Laramie. It didn’t take long for him to become frustrated by the lack of decent internet access — even at times no  internet access at all in the area. Only the University of Wyoming had T1 circuits. At home, he was using CompuServe and dial-up at 2400 baud.

So, in 1992 he and a small group of like-minded people in the area created a users’ group that became a nonprofit co-op to provide wireless internet access throughout the area. They pooled their money to lease a T1 circuit for $6,000 a month, a ridiculously high price, but their only option. For wireless distribution, they used a new 915-MHz unlicensed wireless technology called WaveLAN (the precursor to IEEE 802.11) created by NCR Corp., with which Glass was familiar. They cobbled together a WaveLAN system, found a high location for the transmitter, and distributed the signals to the group’s members and local businesses.

In 2003, the membership of the co-op wanted to be customers rather than having the management responsibilities of co-op members, so Glass and his wife took Laramie Internet Access and Telecommunications (Lariat) public, thus forming the world’s first commercial WISP. Lariat remains in business and, as Glass noted several years ago, it is “growing (in coverage area) about the size of Manhattan” every year. He has become a vocal advocate for the WISP industry and FCC fairness, or the lack thereof, testifying before Congress about net neutrality, about which and other topics he speaks at various venues.

Today, the United States has between 1,000 and 4,000 WISPs, depending on the source of the data, and there are thousands more throughout the world. Their sheer number illustrates that many are still modest operations that serve small geographic areas with several hundred to a few thousand customers. The largest WISP in the United States, Rise Broadband, has more than 200,000 customers. With most estimates saying that about 23 million U.S. households lack adequate internet access, there’s plenty of room for the WISP industry to grow.

And it is indeed growing. The Carmel Group, a market research company that has produced an informative report on the industry, last year predicted that subscribers of fixed wireless services in the United States would nearly double to 8.1 million by 2021, with industry revenues expected to increase to more than $5.2 billion from $2.3 billion today. At last year’s Wispapalooza conference held by WISPA, the industry advocacy group, there were more than 1,800 attendees representing 51 states and territories and 31 countries, 36 sponsors, 131 speakers and 91 sessions.

WISPs are also the most cost-effective (and often the only) way to provide data and voice service in developing countries, where wired infrastructure is limited or nonexistent and would be prohibitively expensive to deploy. Finally, as the internet of things (IoT) gains momentum, WISPs are well suited to provide connectivity from the wireless network edge to the Internet, and this is becoming a new revenue stream.

From technological, economic and management perspectives, WISPs have come a long way, especially in recent years. For example, technologies developed for cellular and Wi-Fi ultimately find their way to the WISP industry, including multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) communications, channel bonding, cloud-based network management and various other enhancements. The industry is also increasingly making use of LTE, bringing it in line with the cellular industry.

Even antennas, which KP Performance Antennas has been manufacturing for WISPs since 2008, have evolved to meet advances as they have occurred. For example, the sectored approach to serving a specific geographical area is almost universally used by the industry today, as the cellular industry has done for many years.

A typical example is KP’s KP-5HVX8-65 dual-horizontal/vertical-polarization MIMO sector antenna with a 65-degree azimuth beamwidth and eight ports facing the same direction within a 34-inch radome (see Photo 2). It delivers gain up to 17.5 dBi and covers 4.9 GHz to 6.4 GHz. Connecting two four-port radios to the antenna provides redundancy to increase capacity by using separate channels on each radio. Four of these antennas mounted to a tower provide 360-degree coverage, which can be increased to six antennas for more dense applications.

Fighting for Space
Only a few years after the WISP industry began to expand, it began to experience its first growing pains, for several reasons. First, traditional carriers have the resources and influence to fashion the regulatory environment to suit their purposes. This is evident in auctions in which the FCC sells even small swaths of spectrum for many millions of dollars, well beyond what any WISP could afford, and too large in coverage area to make sense for a provider serving a comparatively small geographical area.
Next is the problem of using unlicensed spectrum, which it must share at 900 MHz and 2450 MHz, for example, with other technologies ranging from non-WISP Wi-Fi hotspots to garage door openers, cordless phones, baby monitors and a variety of other consumer devices. This sharing causes interference, the bane of any wireless service because it degrades performance and becomes a major impediment for WISPs that must operate at the same low RF power levels as other unlicensed devices, even though they traverse long distances versus tens of feet for other applications.

In comparison, licensed spectrum would be ideal because WISPs would be free of the massive congestion of the ISM bands such as 2450 MHz, which today is densely populated even in rural areas. This situation has expanded to the 5-GHz bands used by IEEE 802.11n and IEEE 802.11ac, and soon to IEEE 802.11ax, coming in the next year or so. However, as noted, licensed spectrum is far too expensive and tailored primarily for mobile services covering large areas.

Opportunities and Trouble Brewing
In addition to these longstanding issues are two current potentially lucrative opportunities that have the potential to significantly improve WISPs’ ability to increase performance and capacity, the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and new allocations in the band from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz.
In April 2015, the FCC formally established the CBRS, which uses spectrum-sharing in a three-tiered hierarchy to make 150 megahertz of spectrum available between 3550 MHz and 3700 MHz. This is a considerable number, considering that a typical wireless carrier owns about 130 megahertz of spectrum at various frequencies for all its networks.

This so-called innovation band is designed make it economically feasible for entities other than major carriers to create and operate new services such as private LTE networks. At first glance, this should be of major benefit to WISPs, which need all the spectrum they can get to serve customers’ needs for streaming services such as Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, and other bandwidth-intensive applications. And it may be feasible for WISPs, but as usual, the devil is in the details.
In the CBRS three-tiered hierarchy, incumbents occupy the highest rung and must be protected from interference by the two lower-tier operators. One tier below are Priority Access Licensees (PALs) that obtain by auction a 10-megahertz-wide channel in a single, small tract defined by the census bureau. They will operate within 100 megahertz (3550 to 3650 MHz) of the total available bandwidth and are protected from lowest-tier General Authorized Access (GAA) users for which access is free, but without interference protection. In practice, a GAA user should be able to operate in 80 megahertz of the total bandwidth in each tract.

The benefits for WISPs are the ability to obtain licensed spectrum through auction at far less cost than is the case for traditional auctions because the coverage areas are small. They could also avail themselves of the GAA tier, providing additional lightly regulated (although tightly controlled) spectrum.
The issue, and the reason for WISPA’s recent descent on the FCC and Capitol Hill is an FCC notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would alter the original CBRS rules. WISPs believe that the changes, which were requested by the carriers, would greatly reduce the benefit of CBRS to WISPs. In particular, they are concerned about proposed revisions that would 1) extend PAL licenses from 3 to 10 years and make them renewable without question and  2) expand PAL geographical sizes from census tracts to Partial Economic Areas designated by the FCC a few years ago that are much larger (only 416 nationwide) and best suit wireless carriers rather than WISPs. The result of these changes, according to

WISPA, would be a return to the traditional scenario existing in licensed bands, effectively excluding the nontraditional, innovative entities that CBRS was created in part to serve.
It would also potentially strand investments in LTE many WISPs have already made in the in the section of the band from 3650 MHz to 3700 MHz, which WISPA claims would reduce any incentive to spend more money on advanced technologies required to better serve more customers. WISPs also assumed they would be able to win some PAL licenses and upgrade this equipment to use the entire band.
That said, even if the FCC accepted the changes that the carriers are seeking, WISPs would be able to use the CBRS band as GAAs because half of the band will still not be auctioned, including the portion they’re currently using. They could also still use licensed CBRS spectrum in places where PALs haven’t deployed service, although this adds an element of uncertainty that many WISPs might consider too risky.
WISPA states its concerns concisely in its comments on the NPRM: “The rule changes sought by the incumbent wireless carriers would undercut each and every one of the important statutory requirements of [CBRS] and the public policy objectives clearly articulated throughout the CBRS Order without producing any alternative public interest benefit.

“The spectrum assignment changes they (the wireless carriers) propose … would drive up the costs of initial license procurement and thereby limit the pool of bidders, forcing out smaller and more innovative spectrum users that do not require large geographic areas to implement their business plans. The carriers wish to make the CBRS rules more like every other auctioned spectrum band in which, not coincidentally, the major wireless carriers have obtained the lion’s share of the licenses.”
The FCC is expected to rule on the carrier-requested changes in the next few months.

Photo 2. The KP-5HVX8-65 dual-horizontal/vertical-polarization MIMO sector antenna provides eight radiating elements to enable two, four-port radios to be used in the same direction to provide redundancy.

WISPA, along with long list of WISPs, manufacturers and other organizations petitioned the FCC collectivity as part of the Broadband Access Coalition to revise the current rules to allow the creation of a point-to-multipoint service in the band from 3700 MHz to 4200 MHz that is currently underused for serving rural areas. The FCC has already proposed such a service, and the coalition urges it to do so. However, WISPA’s concern is that this reallocation could also result in the same situation as it currently taking place with CBRS.

The FCC proposal would modernize deployment of high-speed, licensed point-to-multipoint fixed wireless broadband services (i.e., WISPs) while protecting incumbent fixed-satellite service and other incumbents on a shared basis. A significant difference between this allocation and CBRS is that there are no incumbent services to protect, so no complex spectrum management system would be required to eliminate interference.

This band has even greater potential benefit for WISPs than CBRS because it provides 500 megahertz of contiguous bandwidth that would accommodate bonding of the 40-, 80- and 160-megahertz-wide channels needed to achieve gigabit-level LTE service. The band also has propagation characteristics similar to those of the 3.5-GHz band, so, like CBRS, it would potentially make non-line-of-sight transmission paths possible.

Looking Ahead
As is probably obvious at this point, the WISP industry is growing in coverage, revenue and technical sophistication. However, it also faces daunting challenges, especially in availability and equitable use of spectrum. Challenges are nothing new for the industry, but several factors make the current situation arguably more important than ever.

Foremost, a confluence of circumstances has produced an environment that is, at least potentially, a watershed moment for the WISP industry. There finally appears to be more interest than usual in Washington about ensuring more people have at least one viable (i.e., high-speed) option for internet access. How this ultimately is resolved remains to be seen, but CBRS, making the band from 3700 MHz to 4200 MHz available for fixed wireless access, and potentially other opportunities should provide some benefits.

This spectrum is essential for WISPs to increase minimum downstream data rates to accommodate the inexorable growth of streaming because streaming requires wide channel bandwidths and thus not only more spectrum, but also frequencies unencumbered by the interference that has plagued WISPs for years on the unlicensed bands to which they have been relegated. The FCC presumably will make its decision concerning the revision of the CBRS rules, and the outcome will largely determine how well WISPs fare in the future.

Justin Pollock is an antenna engineer at KP Performance Antennas. Visitwww.kpperformance.com.

KP Performance Unveils 2 GHz Sector Antennas for LTE Networks

KP Performance Antennas, a manufacturer of WISP antennas, has released a line of high-performance, 2 GHz sector antennas for use in WISP networks.

KP’s new line of LTE 2 GHz sector antennas consists of three new models: KP-2DP120S-45, a 14 dBi sector with 120° azimuth beamwidth, the KPPA-2GHZDP60S-17-45, a 15.1 dBi sector with a 60° azimuth beamwidth, and the KPPA-2GHZDP90S-45 which provides 17 dBi of gain with a 90° azimuth beamwidth.

These 2 GHz sector antennas utilize a ±45-degree slant dual polarization scheme and are specially designed with optimized front to back and side lobes that allow for frequency reuse. These antennas feature heavy-duty weatherized sector brackets, select models also include jumper cables and radio brackets. These LTE sector antennas also deliver high-gain in a compact shell for ease of deployment. All models in this line operate in the popular 2.3 GHz to 2.7 GHz frequency range and deliver VSWR from 1.3:1 to 2.1.

“Our new 2 GHz sectors are engineered to provide vastly improved coverage and spectral efficiency in LTE deployments through their high-gain, fixed electrical downtilt and optimized patterns with sharp roll-off past their 3 dB beamwidths and superior front-to-back,” explains Justin Pollock, Ph.D., Antenna Engineer at KP Performance Antennas.

These new LTE 2 GHz sector antennas are in-stock and can be ordered directly from the KP Performance Antennas website.

For inquiries, please call 1-855-276-5772.

KP Performance Antennas Signs WAV as North American Stocking Reseller

KP Performance Antennas, a manufacturer of wireless internet service provider (WISP) antennas and accessories, welcomes Aurora, Illinois-based distributor WAV as an authorized stocking reseller of their products in North America.

WAV, Inc. joins KP’s growing channel as a stocking reseller, partnering to expand the company’s sales channels in North America, while also providing its customers value-added services. As an authorized stocking reseller of KP products, WAV, Inc. will now be able to offer their customers throughout the U.S. access to KP’s highly regarded selection of WISP antennas and accessories.

“With the help of WAV’s engineers, amazing sales team and subject matter experts, we will be able to extend our product reach to a much broader audience of wireless ISP customers,” said Shane MacDonald, Senior Accounts Manager at KP Performance Antennas. “This partnership with WAV, Inc. is a very exciting addition for our growing business.”

“We are very pleased to join KP Performance Antennas’ channel. We strive to offer our partners best-in-class solutions and we feel KP Performance will provide that for our WISP customer base,” explains Zach Hubeck, VP of Sales and Marketing at WAV, Inc.