Updated in April 2022 with the latest industry data and figures
This blog on Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) in Canada offers the following:
- Data-driven background on internet access in Canada
- Insights on the need for WISPs in Canada and their contribution
- Information on the WISP industry in Canada, such as market size, key facts, and leading players
Bridging the Digital Divide: WISPs in Canada and Their Contribution
In this age of connected devices, the internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Canada ranks among the top 20 countries in the world for fastest internet speeds. However, there are many regions within Canada that don’t enjoy fast home internet access.
Many areas in Canada are essentially internet blackout zones. Canadians living in rural areas are most affected by this problem, which has led to a nationwide digital divide. This divide significantly limits growth, opportunities, and prosperity for many Canadians.
How Do Canadians Get Their Internet?
Companies across Canada deliver high-speed internet in many ways. Cable, DSL, and fiber are commonly-used methods for cities and densely-populated regions.
Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) is another option favoured by operators to deliver fast, stable internet. By 2018, however, only around 35% of Canadian households had access to FTTH, with 11% subscribing.
Deploying internet services using such cost-intensive and regulated technologies isn’t ideal for rural or sparsely-populated communities. As a result, telcos and bigger operators are generally reluctant to enter those markets without heavy subsidies.
Satellite, meanwhile, is expensive and not known for providing high-speed internet access. As a result, satellite is simply unsuitable for large regions of the country.
Canada has set lofty targets to ensure all Canadians have access to high-speed internet by 2030. Currently, however, more than 45% of Canadians living in rural areas don’t have access to internet speeds that meet the Canadian minimum standard of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload.
This gap is where WISPs come in. WISPs are internet service providers who use fixed wireless technology to deliver internet to residential and business customers.
Who Are WISPs?
WISPs play a critical part in providing Canadians with access to broadband. They serve their customers by investing capital to create networks, often in entirely rural segments.
Simply put, WISPs provide access to a single location through radio waves. This eliminates the need for cable or phone lines.
Most WISPs will generally have fiber or some kind of stable backhaul access. They then use routers, towers, and dishes to reach customer or business premises.
At the customer’s premises, there’s generally a radio or piece of wireless gear to receive the signals. Customers can then access the internet through typical LAN or WiFi-enabled routers.
Compared to satellite technologies, WISPs can provide high-speed access with low latency.
There have also been numerous advancements in fixed wireless technology over the last decade. As a result, WISPs can now provide fiber-like internet speeds to customers. These speeds range from 25-50 Mbps to 100 Mbps, all the way up to plans that offer speeds of 1 Gbps in some areas.
Importantly, fixed wireless access is generally a much more cost-effective method for delivering internet services. This distinction is vital to under-served or rural communities, as WISPs enjoy nationwide reach and success in the US as well.
According to the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the US has close to 3,000 fixed wireless providers. Together, they provide broadband access to over 7 million customers.
WISPs in Canada: How Many Are There?
Unlike the traditional ISP world, there’s a lack of financial and regulatory barriers to enter the world of WISPs. As a result, Canada’s WISP market is competitive.
About 250 operators exist in the country today, and use fixed wireless technology to deliver internet to over 400,000 customers. In addition, the industry is estimated to bring in $160-$180 million in annual revenue.
CanWISP, an industry association that includes more than 50 WISPs, is currently leading the charge to close the digital divide from coast to coast in Canada.
The Canadian government is also committed to bridging the gap. Through the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the federal government has announced a $750-million broadband fund. The goal of this fund is to ensure all Canadians have access to broadband and wireless internet.
Also, the federal government has promised to connect 98% of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026.
As a result, WISPs have an opportunity use government support to further expand access to fixed wireless technology in Canada.
Image from Preseem
Wireless Internet Service Providers in Canada: Key Players
As mentioned earlier, there are approximately 250 WISPs in Canada. As well, some indigenous communities and rural townships are known to invest in Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) technologies. These are often non-profit or cooperative setups.
In order to present an overview of some of the leading WISPs in Canada, we’ve categorized the top companies according to whether they are regional, national, or incumbent providers.
Regional WISPs in Canada
- CCI Wireless: CCI now serves over 27,000 small- and medium-sized enterprises in Alberta. Since acquiring Winnipeg-based WiBand, CCI Wireless is now the second-largest WISP in Canada.
- SeaSide Wireless: One of the largest home-grown ISPs in Nova Scotia. SeaSide Wireless is the incumbent provider of fixed wireless services to over 10,000 customers in more than 10 counties.
- TARGO Communications: A leading hybrid ISP from Quebec, TARGO is the largest WISP south of Montreal. The company owns and manages over 200 interconnected wireless distribution sites spanning more than 6,000 square kilometers in six municipalities. Today, TARGO has tens of thousands of customers.
- Storm Internet: One of the oldest WISPs in Canada. Based in Ottawa, this WISP has coverage spanning more than 50,000 homes in 50+ Eastern Ontario communities. In all, Storm Internet serves over 3,000 fixed wireless subscribers.
- WaveDirect: Based in Leamington, Ontario, WaveDirect serves more than 4,000 customers in and around Essex County. WaveDirect has been providing high-speed rural internet, voice over IP, virtual private networks, and many other services for over 10 years now.
- Kingston Online: Kingston Online has been bringing internet to their customers in the Kingston area since 1993. It is one of the fastest-growing regional WISPs in Ontario today.
- NWIC: With wireless infrastructure that spans from Niagara Falls to Grimsby, Ontario, NWIC is the largest rural ISP in the Niagara Region. Since starting in 2011, NWIC has established 30+ towers and recently acquired the Niagara-based WISP Last Mile Wireless Internet.
National WISPs in Canada
- Teksavvy: One of the largest independent ISPs in the country, Teksavvy serves tens of thousands of Canadians using cable and DSL technologies.
- Xplornet: One of the largest rural communications providers with over 300,000 customers, Xplornet primarily uses satellite technologies and has charted its fixed wireless path using a string of acquisitions. Today, the company serves tens of thousands of wireless customers. This year, Xplornet added over 1,600 subscribers when they acquired Full Throttle Networks.
Adding to the WISP market in Canada are incumbent telcos and other satellite operators.
These incumbents often experiment with wireless technologies to serve previously ignored rural regions. Bell Canada, for example, offers wireless internet to business and residential customers in rural communities.
There has been a steady stream of acquisitions in the Canadian WISP industry recently, both by local and regional WISPs as well as national incumbents like Bell, TELUS, and Rogers. This highlights the important contribution WISPs make to connect Canadians, as well as the economic viability of their business.
In 2022 so far, the following strategic transactions have taken place:
Going Forward: The Challenges for WISPs in Canada
Like any other industry, WISPs face serious challenges in the future. Beyond traditional challenges, such as financing, resources, and talent acquisition, WISPs rely critically on bandwidth and spectrum availability.
Currently, Wireless Internet Service Providers in Canada primarily use the lightly-licensed 3.66 GHz band. This is mainly due to the non-viable cost for smaller businesses to operate in other spectrums. This limits the industry’s ability to offer internet that is consumer-friendly and up to modern standards.
Advances in the next generation of broadband internet services only make this problem more challenging. Alternatives to the 3.66 GHz band are the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.
These bands offer their own host of challenges. The 2.4 and 5 GHz bands are already inundated with a variety of uses and services. Understandably, this traffic leads to interference.
As a result, if WISPs in Canada are to thrive, they need to be supported in their desired access to additional spectrum.
Most importantly, one place where WISP access is important is the LTE bands 42 and 43. These bands cover the 3400 to 3800 MHz spectrum and are important if WISPs are to be able to compete in the 4G and 5G technologies that will likely dominate the future of broadband internet access.
CanWISP and other organizations constantly liaison with government agencies to improve the industry. However, their goals need to be supported by the larger consumer community and other influencers as well.
By providing fast and affordable broadband, WISPs bring internet to places that are underserved by other providers. Wireless Internet Service Providers in Canada offer a critical service to their neighbours and communities.
Today, approximately 250 WISPs in Canada serve over 300,000 Canadians from coast to coast.
Regulatory frameworks and spectrum options are the key concerns of the WISP industry in Canada. CanWISP supports a flexible licensing approach that enables service providers to use spectrum for 4G and 5G applications in the 3500 MHz and 3800 MHz bands.
WISPs are successful local businesses, powered by an entrepreneurial spirit. However, WISPs face their own challenges including access to bandwidth and spectrum. Despite this, the market seems poised to continue to grow.
As Canada seeks to take on the goal of countrywide broadband internet access, WISPs will increasingly become a significant part of the national internet plan.
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