WeLink scores funding boost for FWA market expansion

Eventually WeLink's network could be used for things like small cell backhaul. (WeLink)

WeLink, a fixed wireless internet provider, plans to expand its footprint to 10 markets with a $185 million investment from Digital Alpha Advisors.

With capital from Digital Alpha (a firm that brings a strategic relationship with Cisco) WeLink can address what CEO and co-founder Kevin Ross described to Fierce as its “huge” waiting list for internet service.

Founded in 2018, WeLink currently serves an undisclosed number of customers in parts of Las Vegas. 

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The service uses 70 GHz, 60 GHz, 802.11ay silicon technology, and customers’ homes to extend signals for coverage via an outdoor mesh broadband network. Along with adding subscribers in Las Vegas, WeLink plans to expand service to areas in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona in Q2 of this year. Seven additional markets are planned later.

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WeLink targets high-density single-family bedroom communities. Its tech isn’t suited for rural areas, and the company avoids urban settings for business reasons.  

While WeLink is still in its early days, the ISP’s leaders have been around wireless block.

Co-founder and CTO Ahsan Naim has experience in radio access network planning for mobile operators including Sprint and AT&T, and work with Ericsson. Naim was also the chief architect of Sprint’s 8T8R radios for Band 41.

Ross and President and COO Luke Langford were behind former fixed wireless provider Vivint Internet.

Speaking to FierceWireless, Ross and Langford cited their years of experience building networks and using spectrum with known propagation challenges quickly and efficiently, circumventing traditional street furniture and telecom infrastructure, as one key enabler for WeLink.

Other companies have tried a similar approach without much success, they acknowledged, but stressed a main difference now is that the cost of technology has come down.

“This is the first time in the 15 years at this where we’ve had access to this type of technology that’s mature and at these cost points,” Ross said. “At the time when we were at Vivint, this exact same category of technology was 20 times the cost that we’re able to buy it at today.”

WeLink said it uses tech and gear from a variety of companies focused on the networking and fixed wireless space.

How WeLink works

How it works is WeLink leverages existing fiber and rooftop sites (sometimes leasing dark fiber) that serve as launch points, typically within a few miles of the neighborhood where they want to offer service.

Those sites deliver a signal using 70 GHz E-band 10 gigabit Full Duplex radios to what are dubbed “anchor” homes in a neighborhood. From there, anchor homes act as the infrastructure to send signals over 60 GHz to nearby homes with outdoor receivers and an indoor Wi-Fi setup, in what essentially becomes an outdoor mesh network.

Anchor homes are the first to get service and provide redundancy for coverage, according to Ross, so that WeLink isn’t dependent on customers to deliver service and is insulated whether subscribers join or leave the network.   

Installations don’t happen until it hits a “critical mass” for signups, but they said that happens quickly, typically within a week and a half.  

“We don’t need a very dense critical mass, we’re talking just a couple of percentage points of people to raise their hands,” Ross said. “Within a week or two of offering service in a neighborhood we’ll almost always have many times more what we need in terms of density to build an initial layer.”

WeLink costs $70 per month for internet service with symmetrical (up and down) 940 Mbps speeds. That price includes a high-end Wi-Fi system, and after two years customers get a “loyalty discount” where the price comes down to $60 per month.

The economics are also different than 5G FWA using mmWave spectrum, like Verizon’s 5G Home Interne which primary uses licensed 28 GHz spectrum. Small cell deployments are pricey, requiring fiber backhaul and power, alongside known propagation challenges of high-band mmWave.  

Langford pegged the cost for sites using a traditional 5G mmWave deployment at around $60,000 each.

“By contrast, our sites are very inexpensive, and they pay us revenue,” Langford said. “And we have 10-times as many of them because even with a lower density of customers we have a lot of sites to propagate the signal from.”

Challenging cablecos

WeLink considers cable companies its main competitors, and mobile operators to a lesser extent as carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile move more into fixed wireless.

“The majority of customers we acquire we take from cable companies,” Ross said. Part of the pent up demand they’re seeing and where cable companies aren’t meeting needs is symmetrical service, particularly as people work from home and need uplink capacity for things like video conferencing and uploading large files.

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One of the biggest proof points Ross and Longford cited is that once customers subscribe to WeLink, they tend to stay, noting that’s been in areas where its competes with cable providers like Cox Communications.

“We have a basically non-existent attrition rate in the last 12 months,” Ross said, adding that if customers canceled it was largely due to moving. “We’ve fundamentally shown that we can compete against fiber and gigabit cable and offer a better experience with the way we do things at much much lower cost points to deploy the network.”

When it comes to carriers, with Verizon offering a mmWave-based 5G internet (as well as LTE-based) and T-Mobile piloting LTE with 5G to come – WeLink thinks it has the best of both worlds.

For sub-6 GHz FWA, Ross said macro network deployments will continue to be constrained capacity-wise, while 5G mmWave FWA has the channel size but costly rollout.

Cisco connection

Digital Alpha Advisors has a strategic agreement with Cisco, and through the investment WeLink now gets a multi-faceted relationship that will cover a number of fronts, according to Langford and Ross.

“[Cisco] is obviously a leader in networking and very forward thinking and we are grateful that through Digital Alpha we can collaborate with them,” Langford said.

WeLink’s funding announcement, which has an outcome-based financing mechanism, included comment from CTO of Cisco’s Broadband Business John Chapman.

“We’re thrilled to take this next step with WeLink to enable the future of fixed-wireless broadband,” said Chapman said in the announcement. “Their approach of using fixed-wireless to provide high-speed broadband internet access helps to drive digital transformation and accelerate an inclusive future for all.”

Separately, with its site acquisition model, providing internet service is WeLink’s main focus in the early stages, but eventually the network could be used for other things like backhaul.

“We think our network is appropriate for a lot of different applications, including small cell backhaul and that’s a market that you will see us kind of active in as well,” Ross said.