5 Ways 5G Podcast
March 9, 2020

Podcast: How a Rural WISP Revitalized Their Area

In the latest episode of The Broadband Bunch, we speak with Casper Faust, Field Operations Manager of Paladin Wireless, a wireless internet service provider aka WISP, in northeast Georgia.  Casper shares with us the challenges of providing reliable high-speed broadband services to rural areas that are either underserved or unserved by the telecom

incumbents.  He explains what a WISP does, how Paladin Wireless got started and its mission to serve and improve their community.

WHAT IS A WISP? AND WHAT DOES A WISP DO?  PALADIN WIRELESS’ JOURNEY

Brad:

We’re glad to have you today, Casper I just wanted you to tell our audience a little bit about Paladin Wireless and what do you do? So, take it away.

New call-to-action

Casper:

Well, plain and simple, we’re an internet service provider in a small town in rural Georgia up in the Northeast. What makes us a little bit different from your standard traditional internet service providers is that we’re a wireless internet service provider, what’s called a WISP nowadays. We’d like to think of ourselves more as a fixed-point internet service provider than a WISP because we deal with a little different technology than the traditional WISPs do. But the principle is still the same. We have an internet connection we generated into radio waves. We then make connections wirelessly to residential customers or business customers.

Casper:

And then they have internet. Why do we do that instead of the traditional method? Well, it’s faster, it’s cheaper and you don’t have the infrastructure problems of rain or anything. It’s just radio waves. You don’t have to worry about cables getting cut, infrastructure going down because of any number of physical, real world problems that affect all internet service providers today. It’s simply radio waves coming out of a point. If you take care of that point, you take care of your customers, everything’s happy, and you can generate a massive amount of coverage area and much, much less time than it does with the traditional methods. It’s easy as that.

Brad:

That’s great. That’s great. A WISP. That’s a new acronym. We love acronyms in telecommunication. We’re going to add that to the list. Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with Paladin Wireless in their current light in the beautiful city of Royston, Georgia here.

Casper:

Well, I was here with the owner of Paladin Wireless before he started Paladin Wireless. So, we had a small IT company running out of the same shop and we couldn’t get enough internet service to actually run the IT shop. It was just too slow. And after several calls to ATT we just were not able, they didn’t have that service available. I’m sure they would’ve been happy to sell it, but they didn’t. And his final statement that poor ATT representative was, well, if you can’t sell me the kind of service that I want to buy from you, I’m going to start an internet company and sell it to other people. And about two weeks later we started having weird shaped boxes show up at the door and pulling antennas out of it. I’m saying, “What is this stuff?” He said, “That’s going to be the internet.” Well, sure enough it was.

Brad:

It sounds like that was your new IT job assignment at that point then.

Casper:

It was. At that point they were just looking at me because I was the only person that had any construction experience. And they said, “Do you think you know how to run a cable into somebody’s house?” And I’m like, “Sure. That’s easy.” “Like, great, you’re the install guy.” And so it just went from there. And through other training and credentials that I developed from different jobs I’ve had in the past that allowed me to kind of just rise up and be like, “Okay, you seem to understand radio waves the best and you have a grasp of the networking. So, help us deploy these different assets into different areas to then provide service to the people that want to buy it.”

Telecommunication Monetization Strategies

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WISP

Brad:

That’s fabulous. Explain a little bit about what you would do on a daily basis and maybe some of the things that you see and what some of the goals on a daily basis, maybe some of the challenges that you run into.

Casper:

Absolutely, daily basis, every day starts out almost exactly the same. Sit down and see what the full-on nighttime stats was for the network the previous day.  The condensed down statistics for how was the RF environment, how is the network from an IP level running, what was the latency, what was our maximum bandwidth? Are there any offline customers right now? That’s a huge thing to get. You might want to know that. And so as soon as you get to the office that I’ve actually already checked it from my house, like eight times before I got there, but I can get the real granular report once I sit down here, I’d see how everything was running because I have a daily service schedule and jobs set up from days before. But depending on what happened during the night, that might all get changed.

Casper:

Once I get that report in from all my different systems, I can then determine whether we’re going to proceed with the day as planned or if we need to pull in a different direction and go repair something or get someone back online, that’s a business customer. Outside of that, once the network statistics and just what’s basically my baby at this point is running, then we’ll just go forward and start assigning jobs, get technicians in the right place. And then I start either working on future deployments, working with new customers on specific one of cases where someone’s outside of network coverage area but is very interested in our service. So how do we get it to them? Or maintenance that needs to be done and just trying to figure out which systems need to be upgraded, redeployed or realigned to better service the population of Royston.

 

WISPS’ MISSION TO CONNECT THE UNSERVED & UNDERSERVED WITH BROADBAND SERVICES

Brad:

Understood. It sounds like through some of the language you’ve used that there’s truly a mission to connect the underserved here in Royston, Georgia and in this county also.

Casper:

Absolutely. This is what would be classified as an underserved area by the state of Georgia and the federal government. If you ask most people around here, just the general populace, I’m sure they would tell you this is an unserved area. It’s underserved would be, well, I can’t get the kind of internet I want. Most people out here cannot get internet. You think that you always have satellite options available. You can always get used net. You can always give ViaSat. We live in a very wooded part of the Appalachian foothills. Many people that we try to serve have such thick tree cover around their house that they can’t get even a satellite connection unless they cut down trees. I don’t think anybody wants to be told, “Okay, if you want the internet connection, you need to first buy a chainsaw.” That’s not realistic.

Casper:

And so yeah, if you can’t get the internet then you’re not underserved. You are unserved. And that’s not realistic for the modern society. I mean, if you don’t have internet connection nowadays, people look at you like you don’t have electricity. If I can’t get an internet connection and someone else can, and we both are given an assignment who’s likely to complete it sooner, who’s likely to complete it better. If they can do the job better than I can and they’re going to progress faster and I’m going to have less and they’re going to have more simply because I don’t have availability to that information.

Craig:

And that brings up a great point. You talked about when we first began the conversation, the excitement within the company being able to provide that kind of service to the area. I’m assuming that the response has been extremely positive from the people that were either un[served] or underserved that now have the opportunity to access the internet. What’s that been like?

Casper:

It’s been really interesting. You watch these small houses that couldn’t get anything. And most of it’s for television, but a lot of it’s for school. You have a 13-year-old is in school and they couldn’t get any internet service. So many people are telling us, “Oh, we just have to go up to McDonald’s, literally sit in a parking lot outside McDonald’s, use the Wi-Fi, get the schoolwork done, and then you can go home for the day.” And we’re telling them for $49.99 a month that they don’t have to drive up to McDonald’s every day to do homework anymore.

Casper:

They’re enamored. They can’t believe that, that’s all it took was some small piece of aluminum and plastic on the outside of their house, smaller than their Direct TV dish that can do all that for them. And we’re not a large company. If you call us up, you talk to someone directly. You don’t have to go through a tree menu. You have people that know your account, that know you and they know us. When someone answers phone aside from our front desk attendant, I almost always hear, “Well, where is Mrs. Fortman? I’m used to her answering the phones.” We have a relationship with these people and we can’t compete with a tier one provider on coverage area.

We can’t compete with them on the number of services provided. What I can compete with them is customer service. I can build a relationship; I can work with people. And it’s almost like a small family and a community the way that the traditional sense of community was. And so I think our customers really feel that and it reflects. The reviews that we get online from people that are our customers that have our services, almost always five stars because it’s not about making the money, it’s about making the connection, both the internet connection and the personal connection because that’s what’s going to grow the product is that feeling of value, not that feeling of, well, I go with Paladin and because it’s just the only thing around.

 

CHALLENGES FOR WISPS TO PROVIDE INTERNET SERVICE TO RURAL AREAS

Brad:

Understood. You mentioned a little bit ago about a heavily wooded area here in North Georgia. That’s interesting because obviously line of sight should be very important then in a WISP model. What are some of the other challenges you might have in terms of maybe terrain, elevation, trees…?

Casper:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, all of that definitely comes into play with traditional wireless internet service providers or WISPs. They all started out with microwave transmissions. So you’re using higher frequency what would technically be classified as microwave that almost requires line of sight. If it’s the ways you could get away with non-line of sight where you had something in the way they just had to be very, very close to your tower or Point of Presence (POP) as we refer to it in the industry. Nowadays with more modern technology LTE has become a thing that we’re all very familiar with on our phone. Well, LTEs got a lot of different frequencies that can operate in and we use one that’s a very soon going to be classified as CBRS or the Citizens Broadband Radio Service.

Casper:

And so that gives us non line of sight options that we didn’t have two or three years ago. And that has opened up a world of customers to us that we just couldn’t get to simply because they lived in a wooded area or even if they didn’t live in a wooded area, there was a large amount of trees in the distance between them and one of our Points of Presence.  LTE has been a huge advantage for us. We get supported by some great companies that have really helped us learn and develop our network to better service people in Royston, Georgia and our other networks as we’re expanding. There’s other non-LTE frequencies that we can use, but it looks like the trend and the way the world’s going is almost all of our radio connections are going to wind up being LTE in the future.

Craig:

This is the Broadband Bunch. We are visiting with Caspar Faust, the Field Operations Manager here at Paladin Wireless. You talk about of course, being based here in Royston, what are other areas that are either being served now or could potentially be served in the near future from Paladin?

Casper:

Well, we do have a small network in Jefferson, Georgia. We’re working to expand that one. And then we have been recently talking with Oglethorpe County, Georgia and they’ve been very receptive to our proposal for what we could do to solve their internet problem that they were having from the incumbent service providers. And so we’re developing a great relationship with the people in Oglethorpe. We’ve already got a really strong plan that we’ve developed over the last few years that if deployed correctly can service 95% within the first, I believe, five years of the project of the entire County. So 95% coverage whereas they have almost nothing at the moment that…

Casper:

And why I say almost nothing, they have almost nothing that qualifies by the federal standards for broadband service. And that’s what it comes down to. It comes down to there has to be a standard for Internet Service Provider. Otherwise if somebody says, “Well, you can get dial-up, we don’t have to continue to progress in that direction. You have internet, well, dial-up’s not internet, not by the modern standards.” There has to be a standard set. The government set that and most areas are not meeting that. Our goal is to bring everyone up to and exceed the standard.

 

A WISP’S PASSION TO CONNECT & SERVE THEIR COMMUNITY

Brad:

That’s fabulous. So, I’m interested now, you seem very passionate about what you do. What keeps you doing what you do? What keeps you on board with being the Field Operations Manager for a WISP?

Casper:

Well, I’m definitely pretty nerdy to be in this industry and keep any kind of passion you have to be pretty nerdy. And I honestly just love making radio connections. I think it’s the most interesting thing in the world. I love doing it, but more than that, I love watching the impact it’s having on my community. I can’t go to a single gas station to get a drink after work or if I go to get lunch, somebody sees me and even if I don’t have on a Paladin hat, they say, “Well, when’s that coming out to this area? My buddies got it over here, what am I going to be able to get it at my house?” And it’s like, “It’s coming soon.” But I’m not even from Royston, Georgia originally. I’ve only lived here for the last seven years and I can’t go anywhere without people knowing me because I have the product that they want the most.

Casper:

And I mean, to me that’s just really interesting. I get to use it kind of technology and kind of science that I’m very interested in. And then I get to see the positive impact that it has all my community with direct relations with the actual people from around here. And it’s grassroots connections. It’s not, “Oh, I see that you have on an Atlanta Hawks jersey and I like the Hawks.” It’s, “Oh, I know you, you live down here. When can you help me fix my small-town problem of I want my daughter to be able to complete her homework?”

 

HOW A WISP LIKE PALADIN CAN REVITALIZE A COMMUNITY

Craig:

Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head with the interpersonal relationship that you and the other team members here at Paladin have in the community. And that’s the vested interest that you have in serving the local residents from a commercial standpoint. Do you get the same response from those looking to increase their accessibility as well? We talk about being able to improve the educational opportunities, but also from an economic standpoint, being able to grow things from an economic perspective.

Casper:

Absolutely. We’ve been able to provide service, in the middle of downtown Royston. When I say downtown Royston, I mean all three of our city blocks. We have two stoplights now. We’re very proud of that second stoplight but when we first started up the company, almost all of the city blocks down here were empty. None of the buildings that have been standing since probably the 40s, I would say just based on the architecture of them, no one had any businesses in them because they couldn’t get an internet service. Imagine trying to run a small business without an internet connection. It’s not possible. You have your phone set to hotspot the entire time.

Casper:

And so since we’ve been providing, and we have wonderful blanket coverage in the middle of downtown Royston through the gracious use of the city of Royston, they’ve given us access to one of their water towers that can completely saturate the entire area with our signal. And so now almost all of these buildings have a small business from this town in them. And they all have one of our antennas sitting on top of it. Now that doesn’t mean near as much to us from their accounts being online as it does to the City of Royston being able to grow and thrive again because they’re small businesses operating inside the city limits.

Brad:

That’s fabulous. A great story. Clearly, economically, whether it’s fixed line or fixed wireless giving people the ability to communicate via broadband internet, high speed internet is crucial to the community and it’s great that you’ve already seen that revitalization in your downtown area.

 

TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGES AND THE FUTURE FOR WISPS LIKE PALADIN

Craig:

I’m interested before we a couple of more entertaining aspects of our visit today, you mentioned the interest from a technological standpoint in this effort here. With technology there is constant change and it moves very rapidly, how do you approach both from a personal and professional standpoint, knowing that what you’re using today won’t be what you’re using in the very near future and being ready to make those adaptations?

Casper:

Well, that is truly one of the biggest challenges.  Because for us, when it comes time to overhaul or replace the system, it’s not just go out there and do it. It’s go up there and do it. So it’s a lot less accessible. What we’ve started doing is looking at any technology we can find that has a minimum lifespan already built into it, that it’s going to be supported and is physically upgradable over the appropriate amount of time from the day we install it. You don’t want something that is no longer going to be serviced or is going to be physical, obsolete hardware after two or three years. You need at least 10 years of service where you can continue to get more and more power and speed out of that. Just as updates and regulations change to become available. When we first started out, we definitely didn’t realize how big this was going to get and how much of a problem that could cost.

Casper:

We didn’t have all the necessary gear the first time around, but we have since then been able to upgrade and we’re looking to the future as far as 5G, massive MIMO, multi-massive MIMO. There’s all kinds of different things that we’re looking for that people have heard of. And we want to make sure we’re on the forefront of that technology so we can deploy it first and then we can use it for the lifespan of its existence and get the best performance out of it. Because if we’re still operating a 4G network, when 5G is out, that’s going to be like someone that has a 3G phone two years ago, when everyone’s walking around with 4G LTE on their iPhone, it just doesn’t make sense. So we’ve got to make sure we’re on the forefront of technology and we’ve got to make sure that technology is going to be backed for the appropriate amount of time. Because like I said, once it’s up there, it doesn’t just come down easily.

 

WISPs ARE LOCAL TO THE COMMUNITY THEY SERVE

Craig:

When you look at how things have changed so rapidly since Paladin began operations here, we talked about the challenges with regard to maintaining a top level service, but knowing the response that you’ve gotten from day one, from your friends, your neighbors, your family … in the area, is it something that is worthwhile for you knowing that you are making such a positive impact in your local community?

Casper:

I mean, it’s absolutely worthwhile. I didn’t grow up in Royston like I said, but I did grow up in Franklin County and I grew up 12 miles down the road from here. So while I might not have always lived in the city of Royston, most of the people that I’m servicing now, I knew a lot of them from high school. It’s absolutely worthwhile to be able to see people that I knew at a completely different part of my life and I talked to them on social media. Some of them, I still have their cell phone number from decades back and they’ll text me or call me or message me in some way and say, “Hey man, thank you so much. This has just been great.” The Chief of Police of Royston, Georgia has our number or has my number because I’m providing them internet service and I was the technician at the time they did it.

Casper:

And so he’s texted me before and said, “Hey, I want kind of a new router, what should I get?” I’ve got the Chief of Police texting and it makes me feel so cool, but I’m just at my house. Like, “Well, I like this one personally.” So I love the connections that we’re making. The impact that we see we’re having is very, very substantial. I mean, the biggest thing that we see that shows our impact is the number of requests for service we get. That is, I mean, literally 50, 60 miles outside of our existing service area. And we don’t do anything advertising-wise. All of our advertising is word of mouth. And if you happen to find our Facebook page. If I’m getting people 60 miles away that are requesting for service, it’s like we must be doing something right.

Craig:

Well, I think that no conversation on the Broadband Bunch would be complete unless we had some component that would be quiz related. Would you agree?

Brad:

Absolutely. Agreed.

Casper:

Oh, it’s sounds fun.

Craig:

I think that there’s something that not only would be entertaining, but educational for all the listeners of the Broadband Bunch. And so it’s sort of a comparison. Brad, I think you’ve got some really great topics for us.

 

TAKE THE TELECOM INNOVATION QUIZ

Brad:

Sure. So just to end this portion of the Broadband Bunch podcast, we’re going to have a little quiz. We call this quiz “Telecom Innovator or Medieval European Ruler”. I’m going to give you a name and you’re simply going to tell me, are they a telecom innovator or were they a medieval European ruler? Understand?

Casper:

I’m so excited right now.

Brad:

Excellent. Excellent. Okay. The first name Mr. Harold Godwinson.

Casper:

Harold Godwinson. I’m going to go with telecom innovator.

Brad:

You are incorrect, sir.

Casper:

Oh, my gosh.

Brad:

Harold Godwinson also known as Harold the Second was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. His reign was very brief, but ended in 1066 at the beginning of the battle of Hastings.

Casper:

Well, are we sure he didn’t innovate telecom though? I mean, is there a definitive proof that he didn’t?

Craig:

I’m with you Casper. I’m with you.

Brad:

I learned this on the internet, so…

Casper:

I guarantee it’s true then.

Brad:

So has to be true, correct?

Casper:

As an internet service provider, I can guarantee anything you find there is 100% accurate.

Brad:

Absolutely.

Casper:

And the highest quality.

Brad:

Okay. Our second name is Eric Torvaldson.

Casper:

Oh, see that? The first one being Harold had me leaning toward, well, I can’t imagine a dictator being named Harold than Torvaldson. That makes me want to say, that’s got to be a European dictator. But are you misleading me?

Brad:

I’m trying to.

Casper:

I feel like you are. So I’m again going to go with telecom innovator.

Brad:

Very good. But your answer would be incorrect.

Casper:

Oh, my gosh!

Brad:

Eric Torvaldson also known as Eric the Red.

Caspar:

Oh, that was Eric the Red. Oh, that’s so obvious.

Brad:

… was a Viking leader an explorer who settled Greenland in 986 AD he was known for his fiery red hair and his temper of course.

Casper:

So what you’re telling me that he went from one area to another, established a community and then brought a flow of goods and information from that area to the… Are you sure this not a telecom innovator?

Craig:

He would have been a communication innovator. I’ll give you…

Craig:

Half credit.

Brad:

A half a point.

Craig:

That is a great argument, sir.

Casper:

We can whiteboard this out if we need to.

Brad:

This is a great argument. Are you ready for the third?

Casper:

I’m ready for the third though I feel like I’m not going to do well.

Craig:

I’ve got faith in you Casper.

Brad:

Our third name Jacobus Hartson.

Casper:

Oh, that’s mean, that’s so mean. What are the odds that you’ve given me all three dictators? That’s got to be low. Right? But at the same time…

Craig:

Follow your gut.

Casper:

Follow my gut?

Brad:

Yeah.

Casper:

I think everyone’s a telecom innovator.

Brad:

And you are correct.

Casper:

Yes.

Brad:

Absolutely. Jacobus Hartson also known as Jap, his nickname, is an Ericsson employee and inventor of Bluetooth technology to add value to the mobile phone in the mid-1990s. The project Bluetooth was named after the Viking King Harold Bluetooth Gormson.

Casper:

That I did know actually.

Brad:

Who United the Danish tribes in 900 A0 era with his supreme communication skills. So there was a tie you probably could say both on.

Craig:

I like that.

Casper:

And the Bluetooth symbol actually is loosely based around a symbol that was found on his cross.

Brad:

Really. We’re now we’re educating each other.

Craig:

I love it. So not only do you get entertained, but educated right here on the Broadband Bunch.

Brad:

Thank you internet.

Casper:

Thank you internet.

Craig:

It’s been a great visit Caspar. You’ve been a phenomenal guest. We appreciate learning about what important work you guys have going on here at Paladin Wireless. We’re so excited to see the continued growth here as the footprint expands and we’re very pleased that you were willing to spend some time with us today on the Broadband Bunch.

Casper:

Oh, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a blast.