I know WISP operators who are some of the best ISPs in the country. When I rate them as best, I’m talking about how they deliver products their customers are happy with and how they provide great customer service and timely repairs. They are the kind of ISP that builds customer loyalty. I fully expect high-quality WISPs to be able to compete against fiber networks. While the industry lately seems to be fixated on broadband speeds, there are customers that value other aspects of being an ISP, such as trust and reliability.
I’ve never built a business plan that assumes that any fiber ISP will sweep the market and get every customer, so there will always be room for other ISPs. There is some portion of customers in any market that will switch immediately to fiber. There has been so much hype about fiber that many folks accept it as the gold standard. But the penetration rate of a new fiber network builder is going to depend on who builds and operates the network.
I think WISPs (and every other ISP) will have a hard time competing against a cooperative that builds fiber, particularly one that sets low prices like $50 or $60 for a gigabit. But not all coops will have affordable rates, and not all coops are loved by their members.
WISPs will have a much easier time competing against big telcos that win broadband grants. My firm does a lot of surveys, and a lot of the public has a massive dislike of big telcos like Frontier, CenturyLink, Windstream, AT&T, and some others. The public rightfully blames these big ISPs for walking away from rural America. I don’t think that folks will flock to these big ISPs just because they build fiber – particularly in cases where there is already a high-quality WISP that customers like. I will not be surprised in the future to find some markets where a great WISP will outsell a big ISP with a fiber network. A WISP might survive and thrive in such a market for a long time.
WISPs should also do well against a cable company that builds rural fiber if the cable company charges the same high rates as in cities. There are a lot of homes that can’t or won’t pay $90 – $100 per month for broadband.
But not all WISPs will be able to compete. There is a quiet truth that you will never hear WISPA talk about. There are some absolutely dreadful WISPs in the country. Lousy WISPs come in all sizes, but some of the largest WISPs are among the worst. Our broadband surveys often show rural folks who despise some of the WISPs in their neighborhood and either refuse to use them or plan to drop them with the first better broadband alternative. These are the WISPs that are not upgrading technology. These are the WISPs that will sell broadband to customers who are too far away from a tower where a WISP might deliver only 1 Mbps broadband but still charge full price. These are the WISPs that build long chains of wireless backhaul through tower after tower until there is not enough bandwidth for customers. These are the WISPs that have terrible customer service.
Interestingly, the most pointed critcism I hear about these poor WISPs comes from the high-quality WISPs. Good WISPs complain about how some WISPs cheat by exceeding power limits or constantly changing channel assignments just to goof up competing WISPs. There are WISPs who might read that as an anti-WISP statement, but these folks have not been reading my blog. I have been complaining about the big telcos non-stop for the last ten years. Small telcos that do a great job have spent the last few decades explaining how they are different from the big telcos. Great WISPs have to point out that they are different than the lousy WISPs that are poisoning the WISP brand name.
WISPA often responds to my blogs by saying I have a fiber bias and am anti-WISP. I admittedly think fiber should be the first choice for grant funding, but that’s a topic for another blog. But I am not anti-WISP, and I have WISP clients that are terrific. I know many other wonderful WISPs. I fully expect some of these WISPs will be around and thriving a decade from now. WISPs who thrive will do so for the same reasons as any other successful ISP – they will deliver a reliable product, priced reasonably, and will provide great customer service.