WISP Industry Navigation and Spectrum Insights from an Expert - ETI

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July 14, 2023

WISP Industry Navigation and Spectrum Insights from an Expert

Brad Hine:

Hello everyone in broadband land and welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m your host, Brad Hine, bringing you stories, stats, and samples from the world of broadband. Earlier this month we were in Louisville, Kentucky on-site for the annual WISPAmerica Conference. WISPA is the national organization for wireless internet service providers, equipment manufacturers, software vendors, and service vendors. It was very well attended and proved to be a very lively conference. We are following up with many of the folks we met to give the listeners a bigger taste of the sessions and content that some may have missed. Our guest today is the Senior Director for Industry and Spectrum directly for the WISPA organization. He has served in leadership roles in the networking, wireless, and telecom industry for over 25 years. Please welcome to the show, Richard Bernhardt. Richard, welcome to the Bunch.

Richard Bernhardt:

Great. I appreciate you having me.

Brad Hine:

Yeah, very excited. What a great conference that was. For the Broadband Bunch, that was the first WISPA conference that we’ve attended in a while since COVID started. So we were glad to be back in action and see a lot of the activity on the expo floor as well as all the content and sessions that were very well attended. At the WISPA conference, you either led or participated in several of the sessions. Is that correct?

Richard Bernhardt:

Yeah. Regularly I’m part of the presentations. This time I had three different sessions with presentations and all different topic areas.

Spectrum Standards and Industry Leadership

Brad Hine:

Yeah. Before we jump into that, can you give our listeners an idea of what you’ve been involved with? I know you sit on many different boards in the industry and a lot of different groups giving educational information as well as spectrum standards. Could you give our audience an idea of the breadth of what you’re involved in right now?

Richard Bernhardt:

Yeah. I have been a participant with WISPA for 13 years and have sat on all the different sides of WISPA. I was with a major value-added distributor for a while where we were the presenters and people at the trade show vendors. Then, I served as a consultant for WISPA for a while working on the development of CBRS. And then, it was brought on almost six years ago now as staff for WISPA. My role crosses over into different organizations. My title includes industry.

I’m the senior director of Spectrum and Industry. Where Spectrum and industry cross over, that’s where I come in. I serve on an organization called the Wireless Innovation Forum, or WIN Forum. WIN Forum is a standards development organization.  It was responsible for creating the baseline standards and the ongoing standards for CBRS, which we’ll talk about a little bit more in detail in this interview, as well as it is in the process of creating and has delivered to the FCC the baseline standards for 6 gigahertz, the new 6 gigahertz coming up with unlicensed being matched with licensed in a shared spectrum arena.

I also sit as the chair of the Fixed Wireless Access committee and on several committees for Ongo Alliance, which promotes LTE and CBRS efforts. And I’m the co-chair of the 6 Gigahertz national multi-stakeholder group, setting the industry direction for 6 Gigahertz in the United States.

From Communications to Law and Lifelong Learning

Brad Hine:

Wow, that’s quite an impressive list. It seems that you just can’t say no to anything.

Richard Bernhardt:

Yeah, that’s what my wife says to me all the time. My schedule is always busy.

Brad Hine

I know that this goes back ways, it’s not just a career. You hold a BA in communications from the University of California Davis as well as some other degrees along the way too. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Richard Bernhardt:

Yeah. I guess I was a little bit of an education nut in my younger years. I’m an attorney and have a JD from California Western School of Law. I did several degrees from the University of California Davis and have believed in lifelong education. It’s something I proffer to several groups I work with.  I have stayed with the education thing throughout my life.

Key Considerations and Steps to Start a Successful WISP

Brad Hine:

Regarding the industry and your involvement with WISPA, it’s fair to say that if it has anything to do with spectrum and access in the industry you’re the liaison to everything under those lists.

Richard Bernhardt:

Well, we have a team. But yes, I’m happy to answer anything in those areas for sure.

Brad Hine:

Great. For our audience, I wanted to give a quick rundown of some of the sessions that you held. I know there’s some fabulous content at the WISPA show. You led a session on MDUs and MTEs as well as a very popular spectrum update. But there was one that’s interesting from the perspective of folks that are very new to the WISP industry and WISPA organization. It’s how to start a WISP. Can you give us some of those major points and KPIs that you spoke about in that session?

Richard Bernhardt:

Yeah. Probably the most asked question on the WISPA website and the most prevalent question that we get on calls into WISPA is: “I am in an area where there’s little internet. And my neighbors need internet. I’ve decided I am interested in starting a WISP. How do I do that? I’ve never done it before. I’d like to know how to approach that.”

Some come from it from the perspective of just being someone in need like that with a neighborhood in need. They’re underserved or unserved in their area. They have the need, and they want to know how to start. Others are allied to the industry in some fashion. Maybe they’re a service provider, or they’ve worked with a vendor. Or maybe, they served as an ISP someplace else, and they’re trying to figure out how to start a WISP or a fixed ISP someplace in the United States.

It’s really important that parties that are interested in starting a WISP understand the business that they’re getting into. That’s one of the real benefits of being a member of WISPA. There are close to a thousand members that can give you advice and direction. It’s one of the few organizations that I’ve ever been associated with where the members share freely with each other as long as they feel safe doing so. In all the years I’ve been associated with WISPA, that’s been one of the things I’m most amazed about is the mentorship and the ability of others who may even be competitors of you eventually, the degree to which they share their information.

What this session was about was creating some of the hallmarks that you need to do in order to begin a successful business and to also introduce yourself to a rather specialized field to know the risks, the opportunities, the benefits, and the downsides, and to sort of look at it from the perspective of is this something that the neighborhood, the community, and the area will benefit from? Is there a market for a WISP in the area? What does it mean to have a market? How would you address it? What types of technologies are appropriate for that area? Is it something that really can be done in an economic way to create an actual and real business?

We do emphasize that you are starting a business. There are risks; there are costs. There are also benefits that can be greatly expanded upon and to identify those benefits and that market upfront. That’s just a short overview, but we have a very detailed set of information that we provide to members.

Understanding the Need and Identifying Opportunities

Brad Hine:

Great points. With the amount of money that we know is in this space now to connect America and to fill that digital divide, how would you consult somebody locally? If you could give us a specific example in terms of competition also. What to be aware of is as far as a new WISP in an underserved area.

Richard Bernhardt:

Well, for many years, WISPs have been just that. They’ve been somebody who’s come in to either be the only game in town. In other words, there just isn’t any service there. Americans might be amazed to find out how many geographic areas in the United States are not covered by broadband. It’s actually a very significant amount of geography in the United States. It’s proportionately less than the population. In other words, major populated areas often have ISPs, but if you go out into rural areas and suburban areas of America and you go out into the areas where there might be 16 or 18 houses to the mile, a lot of those areas just simply don’t have adequate or any coverage.

WISPA must understand the need. That’s one. Two, the competitive landscape for sure. If you look at what kinds of organizations provide ISP services, I’m focusing mostly on broadband here, but it could include mobile phone services and telephony. It can include video services such as television and other video services.

In the aggregate, you have mobile service providers like MNOs. You have cable providers, satellite providers, some hybrid providers that are like fiber and co-op providers, and you have WISPs. They all sort of serve purposes. Generally, they serve them in different areas. Traditionally WISPs, which do cover all the areas, they do cover everything from ultra rural undense areas, if you will, all the way up to very urban areas like Washington DC.

But for the most part, when a new WISP is coming into the marketplace, most of them are looking at either a specialized market or a particular type of delivery service. It’s not always a residential service and maybe for other reasons, or an area that needs the service. That’s usually surveyed either by looking at FCC filings on what’s being covered and by doing a little footwork in the community, going out and talking to the chamber of commerce or the city council or to just community and community events to find out whether or not there will be demand for the services.

Government Involvement in WISPs

Brad Hine:

Great, great. Within that list of competition, obviously, you mentioned a bunch, we do have our private models. We do have traditional telecoms and ISPs. The government’s always one that’s getting into this business too in terms of the WISP. Is that correct?

Richard Bernhardt:

Well, the government itself doesn’t particularly get into the WISP marketplace. But there are municipal co-ops and services provided sometimes that involve government entities. Traditionally, to be honest with you, this has not been a successful venture. Municipal co-ops and municipal broadband historically have not been widely well done. There are better projects coming along. Some of the projects that are now coming out of some of the support programs are doing better, but I would challenge that the government is the best basis as an ISP.

Capital Investment, Partnering, and Diversifying Revenue Streams

Brad Hine:

Nice. Clearly, you’re the leader in terms of spectrum and access to that with all the technologies. In terms of starting a WISP, are you also consulting these folks on the different business models that CapEx versus Opex, different things that they can institute while they’re starting their own WISP?

Richard Bernhardt:

Yeah. One thing to understand about starting a WISP, especially ones that are being started from scratch, is that there’s a fair amount of capital exposure. There’s a fair amount of capital investment that must be done in order to build the network. There must be a way to get that signal out to end-user clients and can be done 100 ways till Wednesday, but they involve cost. Understanding what that cost is and where it might be more affordable to do it one way or another is critically important to someone starting a business and understanding the level of demand is going to be important. Potentially partnering with other groups to bring in finance, to begin with, can be helpful. Maybe starting at a reasonable size rather than trying to take on too many things at once is another consideration.

Also, consider more than simply bringing the signal to an end-user client. There are a lot of associated businesses that go with providing broadband services that can produce revenue for a business. These are things like security and surveillance or wifi control and assistance. In businesses it would be hotspots such as in a coffee shop or in a larger scale thing it could be industrial services like IIOT where, for example, asset management or parking control or building, heating and cooling as part of the services that are offered by the WISP or in conjunction with an operator.

Unlocking Opportunities in MDUs and MTEs for WISPs and Operators

Brad Hine:

I know you were involved with another session. To piggyback on that thought, spreading it out from residential and maybe more the model of serving broadband from the one-to-many work model that’s working MDUs and MTEs. Do you have a little bit to share on that and your session? I know that’s a very small slice of the industry, but strategic, nonetheless.

Richard Bernhardt:

Well, it’s a growing slice in the sense that there are a lot of… you mentioned two terms, MDU and MTE. So that your audience knows what that means, that’s multiple dwelling units, which is like residential apartments or condominium complexes or duplexes. Then you have MTEs, which are multi-tenant enterprises. That can be any kind of multi-tenant enterprise. It can be residential, but typically it could be like a strip mall in the parking lot of a Walmart or a Target where you have multiple businesses that are on the same physical platform.

The building has many businesses contained within one building or multiple buildings, and the tenant, the owner of that building, may provide services to all the tenants. That may be something much larger, which would be a business park or a campus or an educational facility that has many, many different buildings and may have different kinds of tenants, hence the term multiple tenants.

WISPs and operators provide services that are, as you said, one to many, providing different approaches to serving many tenants within one location. If we look at an apartment complex, maybe you have 50 or 100 apartments in a building. There is the ability to go in and serve all of them or a portion of them depending upon how the building management wants to approach things. For an operator, that gives them the opportunity to have many clients in one place. For the building operator, it has the convenience of offering a valued, reliable service, even some competition, and embedding it if they want to through bulk provisions in the services that are offered by the apartment complex. As an example, you may pay for electricity or utilities and at the same time also have internet put in with that.

Navigating the Evolving Spectrum Landscape

Brad Hine:

Great. Putting those two topics, how to start a WISP and the MDU discussion in our back pocket and moving on to, I think one of the more popular and talked about sessions that I had heard about throughout the week was your spectrum update. I know there was actually a bit of a longer session also where you went over every single spectrum and just gave an update. But there are specific spectrums that have come out in the last few years. The ones we’re still kind of waiting on or at least have just been certified — can you talk a little about that session and what you imparted to the public?

Richard Bernhardt:

Yeah. Just a little background before we get into the specific spectrum groups. WISPs, wireless internet service providers, provide services with the right tool for the right circumstance. It would be a misnomer to say that all of them simply serve up wireless services. WISPs use cable, fiber, and whatever means they need. They may combine them. You may have wireless spectrum either licensed or licensed by rule or licensed exempt or unlicensed frequencies being used. They may be used in conjunction with a fiber backhaul for example, or their backhaul might be radio-based. That might also be something that’s either licensed or unlicensed. The spectrum update goes through the bands that are available and their characteristics, but it doesn’t exclude the possibility of also using other modalities such as fiber.

The spectrum update looks at all of the different opportunities for doing the different things that operators need. First and foremost, the operator must be able to get the signal one way or another to the location in the area in which a client is located. That could be a residential client, a multi-tenant client, an MDU or a business or an industrial client, or any other kind of client. The signal has to be able to be reached. That can happen through hard resources like fiber or it can be done by backhaul using license frequencies such as 6 gigahertz point-to-point or 11 gigahertz point-to-point, where the signal is brought great distances to the location in an area where clients are and then use a multi-point radio system or other delivering mechanisms to go to particular clients locations.

In the spectrum update, we like to focus on those things that benefit the broad reach of our members. Some of the hottest topics lately are those things in which I’ll extend already existing frequencies or allow for more deployment methodologies. The hottest, I have to say right now is 6 gigahertz. 6 gigahertz is a frequency band that is currently occupied in its incumbency by point-to-point operators, those that are using six gigahertz to backhaul as I just said, to bring the signal to where they need to.

A good portion of WISPs use 6 gigahertz to do exactly that. Last year, or it’s the year before, the FCC through a series of hearings and finally rulings, published rules regarding the sharing of the spectrum with unlicensed part 15 operators, both in an indoor context for indoor Wi-Fi type uses and for outdoor standard power device use. The standard power device uses 850 megahertz of spectrum, which is an enormously large amount of bandwidth.

The band itself is 1200 megahertz in size and runs throughout most of the 6- and up to the bottom of the 7 gigahertz range, and 1200 megahertz of the spectrum can be used indoors with what’s called low power indoor. It’s a lower-power device that hopefully based on its characteristics — the way it’s been created — will not go through windows and doors and so forth to cause interference with the incumbents. In order to protect incumbents on the 6 gigahertz standard power outdoor side, there is a system put into place called the AFC system or Automatic Frequency Coordination system. That is a system that will allow the operators in that 850 megahertz of spectrum to inquire if there’s an incumbent in the area and what frequencies and at what power they can use to transceive on their radios without interfering with the incumbents.

The great advantage of 6 gigahertz is that it’s so close to the 5.8 gigahertz band that you sort of get this continuity of the 5.8 gigahertz standard power, roughly four plus watts of power that are used right now by WISPs. It’s licensed exempt. It’s license free, as will be the 6 gigahertz, giving a much wider area for licensed free broadcast and bringing broadband into rural areas, especially in suburban areas. This is going to be an enormous assistance. 6 gigahertz is one of the very, very hot topics. We can talk more about that.

Of course, over the past few years, CBRS, Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which is 3550 to 3700 megahertz on the band, on the Spectrum bands, which is a shared band. It was one of the first fully shared bands to be tried. It is fully operational at this point. We can go into some detail if you want, about what CBRS entails, but the great part about CBRS is that it provides 150 megahertz of spectrum that’s shared with government uses and satellite uses as incumbents to provide additional spectrum on the more licensed side of things that WISPs can use.

There are sort of two categories of things in CBRS that they can use. Generally authorized access, which is a set of frequencies that can be used without having to buy a license. But it’s governed by a set of rules, so it’s called Licensed by Rule. And second, is what they call priority access licenses or PALs. Those were purchased originally at auction 105 by the FCC and are governed like a licensed frequency. They’re a little bit different from a licensed frequency in that they give you priority access, not a specifically defined frequency. Those were two of the very hot ones. I’ve got a bunch more, but I think I’ll let you ask some questions about what direction you want me to go.

Certified Devices and Compliance

Brad Hine:

Definitely, these two spectrums are the hottest topics. I want to stay with these, but I’m curious. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of money going into this market. And we’re going to see more. In your opinion, will we see, at least for the wireless market, either grants, local or national that are aimed just at these two spectrums, making them requirements for better connectivity, capacity, et cetera?

Richard Bernhardt:

Typically, funding instruments, grants and government aid and government programs do not or are not typically in the business of calling out a particular band or frequency for their operation. Rather, they set forth characteristics and specific metrics that have to be met. If you can meet those with whatever appropriate service will fit that metric or those metrics, then you can use it. These are two bands that are highly sought after to provide services that will meet various types of funding requirements.

Take, for example, the FCC. The Federal Communications Commission has funding to try and promote under and unserved areas. It was previously called CAF — CAF One and CAF Two. C-A-F was the Connect America Fund. Then that morphed into what is now called the RDOF fund, which is millions of dollars set forth to try and point operators into areas where there is either low coverage or no coverage.

The FCC has its set of requirements as to the time that it wants something built out. The characteristics in terms of the speeds and feeds that are necessary, the consistency and rules that are required for those programs. More recently, the United States government in line with what the administration, Mr. Biden, President Biden did was create a pool of money from the infrastructure funds that Congress approved. In this case 42.6. I may be a little off on the amount, but it’s roughly 42.6 billion dollars of infrastructure funds. That wasn’t the total pool of infrastructure funds. But those were the ones for delivering last-mile broadband to unserved and underserved portions of the United States. That’s across all 50 states.

The program is appointed to the states by the administration, by the NTIA, which is an organization governed by or a department of the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Commerce through the NTIA administers funds to each of the 50 states for programs that the broadband offices in each of those states will create in order to meet the metric of those programs. They called it the IIJA Bead, B-E-A-D, and NOFO.

It’s a lot of acronyms. But in short, what it basically means is that the NOFO portion of it is the notice of funding availability and opportunity. The states will have the opportunity to access that very large amount of money to try and cover areas that aren’t covered in the United States. That doesn’t go specifically to those bands or any particular bands. They do spell out criteria in the BEAD NOFO as to what they wish to achieve and how they wish to achieve it. They’re going to give preference to those methods when they authorize their funds. We hope they also pay attention to the fact that there are areas called high-cost areas where running fiber or other solutions may be very, very expensive.  Hopefully, they’re going to allow for alternatives in those areas. At least that’s what they’ve designated.

Assessing the Scope of Unserved Areas in the US

Brad Hine:

Interesting. Well, thanks so much, Richard, for that update on some of those sessions that you had. I know a lot of work by you went into putting those sessions together. There’s a lot of information. I’m glad we’re getting a brief overview to our listeners. When we talk about unserved areas of the US, how many folks are we really talking about in unserved areas?

Richard Bernhardt:

It’s a great question. I wish I had a great answer for you. The FCC and the United States Congress have noted over a period of time that the accuracy of data available as to what is covered and uncovered across the United States, and adequately covered across the United States is an unclear piece of information.

For many years, the FCC has required ISPs of all kinds, this is not just WISPs, this is any kind of service provider who provides service into residential and business neighborhoods to fill out a form called the 477. The 477 provided data about coverage to the FCC. It became readily apparent that that data was not very accurate. If you went and looked at private surveys and the data from 477 and other sources, there were as low as 20 or 30 million people in the United States that aren’t covered and up to 100 million people who aren’t covered. It all depends upon your perspective on things.

The United States government and the FCC decided there needed to be more accurate mapping. The FCC recently enacted something called the BDC or the broadband data collection methodology, which is looking to try and provide a more accurate assessment of what’s covered in the United States and how it’s covered. It is really nascent at this point. There’s been one complete set of filings and another set of filings are coming this month, so the data is really raw. They’re trying to figure out where things are accurate. If not, they have a challenging process associated with it. The hopes are that the more accurate that becomes, the more likely we can identify what that number really is for at least unserved and then underserved.

The definition of underserved varies from place to place depending on how you set the metrics. The former FCC panel said if you had 25 megabits per second downlink and 3 megabits or 5 megabits per second uplink, you were served. There is some debate as to whether or not that number should be changed with the growing use of broadband services and certainly post-pandemic with a very large demand for broadband services and with additional band demand types of things coming into play, like artificial intelligence and higher digital demand video applications, higher and greater video demand applications including security and surveillance and many other things.

Setting that goalpost as to what the “unserved” and “underserved” mean is really important. The most important thing is that we have a digital divide in the United States. There are people who just simply don’t have those services available to them, whether it be because they can’t afford it or those services aren’t provided or there isn’t adequate competition or adequate technology in the area.

All those things are sort of a national objective to try and level out, and in the end, hopefully, provide services to everyone competitively across the US. There’s some push and pull and tug and so forth. We at WISPA believe that you should be able to use whatever tools you can that make the right ability to provide and reduce the digital divide and that that’s likely to be different things in different places.

Connecting with WISPA

Brad Hine:

Fabulous. Well, I certainly appreciate you joining us today, representing WISPA, giving us a follow-up, and sharing your experience at WISPAmerica with us. I would love to be able to check back in with you either right before or right after. I know WISPA has another conference this fall, WISPAPalooza, that happens every year in Vegas. If our listeners want to find out a little bit more about WISPA or the WISPAPalooza Conference, where can they go for that?

Richard Bernhardt:

Yeah, we do have another conference called WISPAPalooza. WISPAPalooza is traditionally held in Las Vegas. That’s really where it’s held. We haven’t really moved it around much in the years, so you know where it is. It’ll be in October. I don’t have the exact dates in front of me, but it’s early October of 2023. It is much larger in scope than WISPAmerica. There could be over 2000 people at that event and a larger number of vendors. We encourage people to come to that. We also hold, as we just did the WISPAmerica event in March, and that moves around. We’ve been in Birmingham, Alabama,  Memphis, Tennessee, and Houston or Dallas, Texas, and other places. You should watch the WISPA announcements for where the location will be and the date. It’s generally in the same timeframe, but the location moves around.

WISPA.org, it’s very simple, W-I-S-P-A dot org, O-R-G, is the website. You can find out about either of those. You can find out about membership or joining the events and things that WISPA does. Anyone can contact me if they’re interested as well on Spectrum matters or WISPA matters. We have a whole team of people. I don’t want to make it sound like those sessions or any of the sessions were all about me. We have a whole team of people that work on these things as well as benefits for the ISP community. So, I would encourage your listeners to take a look at WISPA.org. There’s a lot of contact information there if they would like to go further.

Wrapping Up with Richard Bernhardt

Brad Hine:

I can attest to that. There’s a lot of great information on WISPA.org. Even if you’re just looking to be educated, looking for different members and vendors in the industry, I highly recommend our listeners to check that out. Well, thanks again, Richard. From everyone at the Broadband Bunch, a huge thank you for joining us today and sharing your wisdom with us. You and I will catch up again before or just after WISPAPalooza this fall and maybe have another great update. Does that sound okay?

Richard Bernhardt:

Look forward to it and appreciate the time today.

Brad Hine:

Well, thank you again from everyone at the Broadband Bunch. I won’t say goodbye, but for a little while, so long.