Nextlink blazes fixed wireless trail in rural areas

Nextlink Internet plans to use the ConPoint network and workforce as its platform to expand in Nebraska. (Pixabay)

A small wireless internet service provider (WISP) that you may not have heard of is expanding, having just acquired another internet service provider in Nebraska, and its sights are set on even further expansion in the heartland.

The operations of Nextlink Internet, based in Hudson Oaks, Texas, are mostly focused on Texas and Oklahoma. But, earlier this week, Nextlink announced it’s acquiring the internet service business of Norfolk, Nebraska-based Connecting Point (ConPoint), thereby establishing an immediate presence in the northeastern part of that state.

In 2018, Nextlink won a competitive bid for $281 million in support over 10 years from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Connect America Fund (CAF) II, which will help the company deploy broadband services to rural homes and businesses in more states. 

Last month, the company announced a partnership with Microsoft as part of its Airband Initiative to bring high-speed internet to areas of Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and Nebraska, in addition to Oklahoma and Texas.

Nextlink uses equipment from a variety of vendors, but today it’s predominantly using gear from Cambium Networks, according to Nextlink CEO Bill Baker. “We’re constantly evaluating and testing new technologies as they come to market,” and across different spectrum bands, he told FierceWirelessTech.

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The 5 GHz band is a popular one for fixed wireless, but the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band also offers potential. Nextlink hasn’t decided yet if it will participate in the Priority Access License (PAL) auction slated for next year. It’s going to see how the General Authorized Access (GAA) unlicensed portion of the band plays out over the next six months. But, as Baker noted, “you can always plan to participate all you want” in an auction, but if multiple cellular carriers show up wanting to acquire licenses in rural areas, their pockets are a lot deeper than a WISP's.

As for 5G, Baker said he doesn’t expect to see that in many rural areas for the foreseeable future, with the exception of maybe some high-trafficked areas like major interstates and transportation corridors where a lot of vehicles are passing through.

A big part of Nextlink’s operating model is building its own tower structures in highly rural environments where it doesn’t make sense to erect a carrier-grade tower for multiple occupants. Its tower structures can be in the form of a water tower or a grain silo—the types of vertical real estate commonly seen in these areas.  

In fact, the company already has over 600 towers of various types, and anticipates it will have a network of over 2,000 towers across its properties as part of meeting its obligations under CAF II.

More growth is a sure thing for Nextlink. With the ConPoint acquisition, its employee base is now up to about 320, and as it looks to expand with the CAF II funding, which just kicked a couple months ago, Baker said it will look at further acquisitions to extend its service area, in addition to growing organically.