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Finding Partners for Broadband Right Where You Are

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Creating technology partnerships within your community is as important as finding partners on the outside.
by Craig Settles December 3, 2020(Source: Pikrepo.com / CC)

My last article discussed the importance of partnerships for communities angling for Federal broadband grants from the various agencies. Are the Chamber of Commerce and churches on the broadband team? Their participation can drive broadband adoption. Libraries and schools can turn the tide for telehealth adoption.

But partnerships with technology companies or internet service providers (ISPs) within communities also are critical. 

These joint ventures show funding agencies the depth of a community’s needs as well as the project’s likelihood of success. 

In rural areas, many times the leading partner candidates are wireless ISPs (WISPs). Unfortunately, bureaucratic Washington, D.C., seems to be enamored with the large companies such as Time Warner and Frontier, so rules that drive some grant programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission don’t favor (fund) WISPs. Nevertheless, the expertise, knowledge, and cost make WISPs ideal partnership candidates.

What’s a WISP?

“If you’re shooting a data signal from an access point on a tower or some other vertical structure to an office building or residence, then you’re probably a WISP,” says Michael Wendy, director of communications at Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, or WISPA, the. “We have about 700 members of the approximately 2,500 WISPs nationally.”

If we look back a decade or so, a WISP was basically several guys who saw there was a need for broadband, they and their neighbors were in a rural area, so no midsize or large service provider was ever going to come out there. They managed to learn enough about broadband to be able to string some routers, access points, and so forth and provide a valuable service. 

In a short period of time, WISPs have become more proficient, efficient, knowledgeable, and have maintained their intense commitment to their communities. As a business partner, WISPs are quite entrepreneurial and provide quality service quickly and at a fair price. Quite a number of these local providers have a good reputation among federal and state agencies.

Serving the Community

Dianne Connery, director of Pottsboro Library, Texas, has found their WISP to be a trusted and creative partner who has assisted her in bringing several broadband initiatives to fruition this year.  

TekWav advised the library and the city of Pottsboro on broadband issues. It cost $4 million to cover all of Pottsboro, so they have to be strategic with the task they pursue. Because many residents don’t have broadband in their homes, the library remained open during the pandemic and Internet access was available by appointment.

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Soon after Pottsboro went into lockdown, patrons started coming in asking about telehealth because their doctors didn’t want them coming into the office for appointments. Connery and TekWav had to figure out the basics of telehealth, apply for and win a grant, and now are ready to launch a telehealth service based in the library with an enhanced Internet connection.

“We wrote and won a $25,000 grant from the Texas State Library & Archives Commission (TSLAC) to put Internet access in low-income students’ homes,” Connery said. “It’s a state agency funded by the federal Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS). Tekwav, a local WISP, will put wireless equipment on water towers and parents come into the library to check out portable Wi-Fi routers.” 

The Gigabit Library Network a global collaboration of tech-savvy libraries, funded three neighborhood access stations, each for under $5,000. “The stations use WiFi and are enabled by Educational Broadcast Services spectrum – EBS,” said GLN director, Don Means. These stations are similar to parking lot Wi-Fi, but they’re located closer to where people live.” Tekwav allows unlimited Internet access from the stations.

In a Hurry – Call a WISP

“Let me sum it up a real easy way – only thing flying off the shelves faster than toilet paper were Wi-Fi routers. Everyone was buying as much as they could get,” Casper Faust, field operations manager at Paladin Wireless describing the early days of Covid-19.

Paladin Wireless in Georgia is a wireless ISP (WISP) and similar to many in the US, residents in Paladin’s service area were frenzied as school kids, college students, and much of the workforce has become restricted to their homes almost overnight. Home wireless routers and Paladin’s network were slammed by the sudden Internet demands.

In the midst of this craziness, Paladin Wireless figured out a solution that would enable them to quickly deploy wireless networks without sacrificing security. 

“I can see deploying an LTE solution for emergency Wi-Fi access across neighborhoods using quick and ruggedized set-ups based on our existing network technology and frequency access,” said Faust. “It’s similar to how your smartphone can do a personal, secure hotspot.” But instead of getting a little hotspot, a person plugs a device straight into a home Wi-Fi router that enables it to become a super-powerful router that’s sped up by the network’s LTE connection.

What’s going to make WISPs even more popular is the new capability that the FCC has made available to them – Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). This spectrum used to be restricted to military use only.

“One major obstacle to fixed wireless has been its inability to penetrate wooded areas,” said Matt Larsen, Owner of the WISP Vistabeam. “Residents can’t get our signals because so much of rural areas have dense foliage. At least 40 or 50 percent of a service area possibly can be opened up if CBRS is available to a WISP.” 

Craig Settles, saved from a stroke by telehealth, pays it forward by uniting community broadband teams and healthcare stakeholders through telehealth initiatives.