The Challenges of Fixed Gigabit Wireless

webpass_logoWe got a preview this week of what fixed wireless service might look like in urban environments. Google announced it is aggressively expanding the footprint of Webpass, the wireless ISP that Google purchased last year. The company has been operating in six cities and will now be expanding to nine more markets. These will all be downtown urban deployments.

The deployment uses high-capacity microwave links to serve high-rise buildings. Webpass already has 20,000 residential customers in the six markets, all which live in downtown high-rises. The company focuses more on serving business customers. This business plan has been around for years and I was actually helping to launch a business years ago with the same plan that died with the 2000 telecom crash.

The network consists of microwave shots to each building on the network. The first hurdle in getting this to work is to get enough quality radio sites to see buildings. As I noted in a blog last week, access to this kind of real estate is at a premium in urban areas, as cellphone providers have found when trying to deploy small cell sites.

The radios required to make the links are not gigantic, but you need one full radio and a dish at both ends of every link. This means that from any one given hub building there will be a limited number of links that can be made to other buildings, just due to space limitations. If you imagine half a dozen companies trying to this same thing (this will be the same basic deployment method for urban 5G), then you can picture a proliferation of companies fighting over available radio space on roofs.

Webpass in the past has limited their deployment to buildings that are either already wired with category 5 cable or fiber. They face the same issue that any broadband provider faces in bringing broadband into older buildings – only they are starting on the roof rather than from a basement wiring closet like other ISPs. There are very few ISPs yet willing to tackle the rewiring effort needed in large older buildings that serve residences. As you will see from the pricing below, Webpass and other ISPs are a lot more willing to tackle business buildings and absorb some rewiring costs.

The primary thing for the public to understand about this new roll-out is that it’s very limited. This won’t go to single family homes. It will go to downtown residential high-rises, but only to those that are pre-wired or easy to wire. And even in those buildings Webpass won’t go unless they get at least 10 customers. However, they will contract with landlords to serve whole buildings.

The Webpass pricing is interesting. For residential customers the price is $60 per month regardless of the speed achieved. Webpass says they deliver speeds between 100 Mbps and 500 Mbps, but in reading numerous reviews, there are complaints that speeds can get slower at peak evening time in some buildings (as one would expect when there are a lot of customers sharing one radio link).

Webpass’ pricing for businesses varies according to the number of other customers they get in a building. For example, if there are 10 or more business customers in a building they will sell a 100 – 200 Mbps connection for $250 per month with a 10 TB monthly data cap. But prices are much higher for customers in buildings with fewer than 10 customers:

Speed              Cost                 Data Cap         Price with no Cap

10 Mbps          $125                   1 TB                $375

20 Mbps          $250                   2 TB                $750

50 Mbps          $500                   5 TB                $1,500

100 Mbps        $1,000                10 TB              $2,000

250 Mbps                                                           $2,500

500 Mbps                                                           $4,000

1 Gbps                                                                $5,500

From a technical perspective Webpass is deploying in line with the way the technology works. The radios are too expensive to deploy to smaller customers or to smaller buildings. A building also need to be within a mile of the base transmitter (and hopefully closer) to get good speeds. That is largely going to mean downtown deployments.

We know there are a number of other companies considering a similar plan. Starry announced almost two years ago that they were deploying something similar in Boston, but has yet to launch. We know AT&T and Verizon are both exploring something similar to this Google product using 5G radios. But all of these companies are going to be fighting over the same limited markets.

The cellular companies keep hinting in their press releases that they will be able to use 5G to bring gigabit speeds. When they say that, this is the kind of deployment they are talking about. The only way they are going to be able to bring gigabit wireless speeds to single family homes and to suburbs is if they can develop some sort of mini transmitters to go onto utility poles. That technology is going to require building fiber close to each house and the radios are going to replace fiber drops. The above deployment by Webpass is not hype – they already have customers in six markets. But this technology is not the panacea for fast broadband for everyone that you might believe from reading the press releases.

4 thoughts on “The Challenges of Fixed Gigabit Wireless

  1. Dear Doug:
    Some of us are “old enough” to remember the roll-out of LMDS… and other fixed wireless applications of millimeter spectrum. Some spectrum auction buyers bet big, but I am unsure whatever happened to the commercial applications. Another spectrum auction buyer, a university, seemed to have the resources and time-to-play (so to speak), but again, I am unsure whatever happened to their applications.

    The one aspect of the roll-out that threw everyone for a loop was — WEATHER. So long as it did not rain or there were no dust storms, the fixed wireless service worked wonderfully… So long as there were no leafy trees…

    Has the vendor / service provider “fixed” the weather problem?
    Thank you for keeping us posted!!

    ~ Ron

  2. My sense of Webpass is that their antenna set-up is like a 5g-ish one-to-many antenna serving multiple residences line-of-sight with little antenna thingies on their windows. Not one-dish to one-dish. I may be wrong.

    I think they’re using mm wave technology and may be using (or trying to use) Artemis’ magic mm wave technology.

    I say “5g-ish” since 5g, while more probable than unicorns, is still aways off. I say “magic mm wave technology” because I read Artemis’ white paper and didn’t understand it; I don’t know if it works.

    Technically, a lot of millimeter wave talk is actually about something in the high centimeter range (between 20 and 30 GHz). I think Webpass is going up in the true mm band around 60 GHz. Oxygen’s great stuff for people but not so good for mm waves.

    All this is based on my non-expert self trying to make sense of what I read; I have no direct knowledge. My actual wireless experience consists of an old ham radio license and hooking up my home router.

    Al Bonnyman

    Al Bonnyman • Fiber Manager/City of Concord • Technologies Edge Inc. •
    704-920-5413 (office) • 706-766-1217 (mobile)
    (note the different area code for my mobile phone)

    From: POTs and PANs
    Reply-To: POTs and PANs
    Date: Wednesday, February 8, 2017 at 07:18
    To: Al Bonnyman
    Subject: [New post] The Challenges of Fixed Gigabit Wireless

    CCGConsulting posted: “We got a preview this week of what fixed wireless service might look like in urban environments. Google announced it is aggressively expanding the footprint of Webpass, the wireless ISP that Google purchased last year. The company has been operating in si”

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