America’s WISPs are adding fiber to their offerings — Moore

Jeff Moore Industry Voices

Fixed wireless accounted for a remarkable 90% of broadband adds in 2022. T-Mobile and Verizon gained nearly 3.2 million net adds last year, while cablecos added 517,103, and telcos lost 181,276 broadband subscribers, based on a recent report by the Leichtman Research Group. The firm computes its numbers based on publicly reported numbers, with T-Mobile and Verizon the only companies counted for fixed wireless.

But the Carmel Group in 2021 reported that there were at least 2,800 wireless internet service providers (WISPs) in the U.S. If these WISPs added 100 subscribers each, then there could have been 280,000 WISP adds in 2022. These companies generally do not report their numbers, so this number is just theoretical.

To be fair, there are also hundreds of smaller telcos and cablecos that do not report their numbers. That said, having attended WISPAmerica 2023 in Louisville this month, my sense is that WISPs are adding plenty of subscribers.

At WISPAmerica there were at least 1,230 attendees, and there were 139 booths and exhibits. “We’ll have about 50 expert panels filled with operational, business, technical and regulatory tracts,” said Mike Wendy, who handles communications for WISPA. I took part in one of these, detailing the competitive environment faced by WISPs.

Rise of hybrid providers as fiber is rolled out

Increasingly, WISPs are rolling out fiber. This usually is not instead of fixed wireless, it is in addition to fixed wireless. I have not seen a number for what percentage of WISPs are doing fiber rollouts, but it seems to be sizable and growing. Quite a few fiber-related vendors had a booth at the show.

I informally polled WISPs at the show about why they were increasingly rolling out fiber. WISP executives gave three possible answers. One is government funding, with the NTIA pushing grant recipients to choose fiber over fixed wireless to get certain grants. Another is customer preference, with customers seeing fiber as the fastest and most desirable means of access. The third was economics, with fiber making more sense in densely populated areas and for MDUs, for example.

An example of this is LTD Broadband, which is now rebranding as GigFire. The WISP has passed more than 11,000 homes with fiber, but also has some ambitious plans for expanding and improving its fixed wireless network.

Winner: Government funding

Federal and state funding for broadband was in the air at WISPAmerica 2023, so it was no shock that WISP executives said that government funding was the top factor for choosing fiber. The CEO of a large WISP told me that government funding was the top reason, and he said that economics and customer preference were tied for second place.

An official for an East Coast WISP cited economics as the driving factor, as his company was focused on MDUs. Another WISP official said of fiber, “Once it’s in the ground, it’s in the ground forever." He has a point, as buried cable survives even the worst of Gulf Coast hurricanes or Oklahoma tornadoes.

Terrain can be a factor. An executive with a large WISP said that in the Midwest, he was focused on fixed wireless. In heavily wooded areas of Tennessee, his company is deploying fiber.

Deploying fiber is complicated

It sometimes makes sense to deploy both technologies. An executive from an MDU-focused WISP told me that he was focused on fiber, but he said that getting the necessary permits can take years. In the meantime, his company is locking down as many subscribers as possible via a wireless solution.

WISPA President David Zumwalt said in a January video that the fiber supply chain has issues.

RELATED: Buy America poses threat to U.S. fiber deployments

I would add that supply is also tight for the labor needed to deploy fiber. In many cases, fixed wireless can be deployed in a matter of weeks, while fiber deployments can be a matter of years. “Global shortage of fiber-optic cable threatens digital growth” was the headline of an Ars Technica report last July.

Value-added services

One major issue facing WISPs is which other services can be added. Officials from WISPs I interviewed showed surprisingly little interest in linear video. Admittedly, there is a generational decline in interest in linear video, with people increasingly choosing over-the-top services such as Netflix, YouTube TV and Hulu. That said, Dish Network and DirecTV both had booths on the show floor.

An official with a Mississippi WISP said that he had access to a Class 5 switch and was profitably selling dial tone. In-home technical services and ISP-related services such as security were also mentioned.

Redundancy is another factor for WISP services, particularly for business services. Businesses cannot afford to be offline. Even if a business selects a cable company or a telco for primary services, a WISP can provide a backup connection to businesses or provide connections to secondary locations not connected to fiber or coaxial cable.

Magenta and red elephants in the room?

I raised the issue of competition with WISP officials, mentioning that T-Mobile and Verizon combined to add 3.2 million subscribers in 2022. These officials showed less concern than I expected. I think the rural focus of most WISPs limits the competition. Also, wireless internet from T-Moble and Verizon is still not an option at most addresses. That said, this is changing and the impact to WISPs is something I will be watching.

During my talk, I told WISPs to exploit their home field advantage to build and maintain share. They know their local markets better than anyone else, including the demographics, the terrain, and how to reach people. Employees of WISPs in some cases are on softball teams with prospective customers. They may go to the same church or may have attended school together. Facebook is useful for many WISPs. I mentioned an Illinois WISP that gives free services to customers for months after entering a market in return for using yard signs acknowledging the provider by name.

WISPs face challenges, ranging from T-Mobile and Verizon to expanding footprints from cable companies and others who are getting government funding. That said, WISPs have a tailwind from rising demard for internet access, particularly given the rise of working from home, even in rural locations. Given value-added services and sales of redundancy for businesses, I think WISPs will continue to thrive. The home field advantage will be key.

Jeff Moore is Principal of Wave7 Research, a wireless research firm that covers U.S. postpaid, prepaid, and smartphone competition. Jeff has 25 years of telecom industry experience, including 13 years of competitive intelligence work for Sprint. Follow him on Twitter @wave7jeff.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.