Fiber Networks, Fixed Wireless & the Future
During our recent ISP Virtual Summit, we held a session on the evolution of the ISP industry named “Fixed Wireless, Fiber and the Future.”
Hosted by Preseem co-founder and Chief Product Officer Dan Siemon, the panel also featured Adair Winter, co-owner and VP of Network Operations at AW Broadband in Texas, and Jason Pond, Chief Expansion Officer at Grizzly Broadband in Montana.
During the discussion, Adair and Jason touched on the challenges and rewards of building fiber hybrid networks, the impact of the COVID pandemic on ISPs, how fixed wireless fits into the future of internet delivery, and the importance of providing exceptional customer support.
Read on for a recap of this session or watch the webinar recording here.
An owner and operator in the WISP industry since 2001, Jason said Grizzly Broadband began building fiber networks in 2015. Recently, Grizzly was awarded $48M in grant money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to build a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network and expand its reach in Western Montana. Though fiber is now Grizzly’s main focus, Jason said competition can be fierce.
“Just because we build fiber, and right now we’re building it rapidly, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” he said. “I’ve seen multiple instances where when you go into a new area, you might be the first fiber there (but then) another provider will come overbuild and you will lose customers. You have to pay attention to that.”
AW Broadband began as a small fixed wireless operator in Amarillo in 2012 and now provides service to around 9,000 subscribers in the Texas Panhandle. AW began installing fiber in 2018 after acquiring another ISP that already had fiber and cable customers.
Adair said that, in the beginning, fixed wireless was attractive for AW because it’s easy to deploy and more cost effective than cable or fiber. It also allows operators to deliver acceptable speeds while earning high monthly recurring revenue. With competitors aggressively marketing speed and price, however, AW noticed that customers began requesting fiber.
“We knew that there was ultimately going to be a shift from having to be heavy fixed wireless focused to focusing on getting fiber into the ground,” said Adair. Their previous acquisition meant they could take over existing fiber contracts and not have to start from scratch. With 175 miles of fiber now laid, they’re focused on continuing to build strategically by identifying geographical areas where they’re already strong, and expanding there.
Fixed Wireless is Still Viable
Despite the increasing move toward fiber networks, both operators recognize the ongoing usefulness of fixed wireless. This could be as a stopgap to get a foothold in an area until funding for fiber can be secured, for example. Adair also mentioned the importance of having “the right tool for the right job” and that AW continues to upgrade its existing fixed wireless, even as its fiber network expands.
Both Adair and Jason mentioned that fiber and fixed wireless are just different types of technology, both of which are still relevant. If you can provide a good reliable product and its best for the customer and the area, then fixed wireless is still a viable business.
As Jason put it, “Fiber is just a technology and also same thing with wireless—it’s just a technology. So if you want to be able to really hold down customers in the future, you’re going to have to be a customer-first company and not a technology-first company.”
That said, local and regional ISPs can’t afford to ignore fiber anymore.
“I love fixed wireless but if you don’t start planning on building fiber, somebody else is going to,” said Adair. Whether the competition overbuilds you due to funding that they’ve secured or just through natural expansion, it’s going to happen. “You’ve got to make your goal to get there as quickly as possible,” he said.
The Ongoing Impact of COVID on ISPs
As Jason pointed out, COVID changed everything with respect to the demand for broadband. Local and regional operators have always understood the importance of broadband and use it every day. COVID, however, took everybody remote and created a huge demand for reliable broadband services. There’s residual change that’s happening and that will continue to have a ripple effect for the near future.
“The way that you’re going to get customers in the future is not going to work the same as it has over the last few years” during COVID, Jason said. The pandemic created enormous demand, something that enabled local and regional operators to grow quickly.
Now, however, there are new technologies (such as satellite) and increased competition (e.g. other fiber network providers) coming in, as well as a massive flow of grant dollars. “There’s billions of dollars being dumped into our industry and everybody’s trying to gain that customer’s attention,” said Jason. He noted that big telcos such as T-Mobile are now players in the fixed wireless internet space, creating another problem for smaller providers.
Focus on Customer Support to Continue Growing
So how can local and regional operators compete in an increasingly competitive arena? By providing exceptional customer support. As Jason mentioned, speed is not all that customers are looking for, it’s just what they’re trained to look for. Really, they want something simple and reliable, and also to know that you care as a company.
For example, make sure to schedule at least an annual checkup with a customer to let them know that they matter to you, even if it’s just an email to see how they’re doing. Customers will stay with you through issues as long as they know you care. They also value knowing that they can get a hold of you and that you’ll respond in a timely fashion.
Both panelists also mentioned the futility of getting into a “race to the bottom” on price with the big providers. For example, discounts become extremely time-consuming and costly at scale.
For AW Broadband, that means they’re focusing more on increasing average revenue per user (ARPU) rather than slashing prices.
Said Adair: “Instead of just going out and selling to everybody who wants $10 internet, we want to go out to those people, sell our value, and figure out what other services we could offer to them—whether that’s voice services, Wi-Fi, basic networking needs inside their business or their home, TV service—and bundle all that together into some kind of formative package that makes people want to use you even if you’re a little bit more expensive than the guy down the road.”
For local and regional operators to continue to succeed, it’s important to pick your niche and do it as well as possible. Serve your customers in the best possible way, and you’ll continue to grow and get referrals.
Looking to the Future
Jason stressed the importance of being proactive and deciding where you want your ISP to be in the next three-to-five years and beyond. Competition is always going to be there—you have to plan for the future and position yourself accordingly, instead of putting out fires as they occur.
Both Adair and Jason said that, while it’s not too late to start building fiber or applying for funding to do so, it’s time to start now if you haven’t already. They also underlined the importance of having policies, procedures, and documentation in place to help consistently pass the audits that come with securing funding.
Finally, Adair passed along some helpful do’s and don’ts for local and regional operators to consider as you look to the future for your ISP:
- Do be flexible in your deployment strategy. Get to customers as quickly as possible and keep them happy with good service.
- Do find a balance. Fixed wireless, fiber, and cable can all meet your customer’s needs. If you’re building fiber, figure out where it can be done economically.
- Do plan on deploying fiber. Fixed wireless operators might not want to hear it, but you don’t have to give it up entirely. You can find a happy medium as a hybrid fiber wireless provider if you have the resources.
- Do provide exceptional customer service. Even if you deploy fiber, “If you don’t support it correctly, if you don’t hire enough people to answer your phone and respond to emails, and have after-hours support, and do all the things that customers expect of you, you’re kind of throwing a lot of it down the drain,” said Adair.
- Don’t wait too long to move. “If you see that opportunity and you don’t take it, somebody else will. It’s just a matter of time,” he said.
Watch the full video below!