March 10, 2020

WISPA: Advocating for WISPs and Rural Broadband

In the latest episode of The Broadband Bunch, we are joined today by Mr. Claude Aiken, the President and CEO at WISPA, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Claude:

Thanks again for having me. I’m excited to be here and excited to talk about what WISPA and WISPs are doing here in the U.S.

Craig:

And when we talk about what is going on in the world of WISPA. Brad, I know you’ve got questions that you have.

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WISPA ORGANIZATION AND MISSION

Brad:

Sure, absolutely. Claude, welcome again today. I want our listeners to know what’s going on in your world and kind of from your vantage point. I want to learn a little bit about WISPA and what your mission is there. I recently read that there are about six million subscribers as of today that are being fed by broadband service from WISPs mostly in rural American communities. Claude, can you tell us a little bit about WISPA, like you said in some of your mission with the fixed wireless community.

Claude:

Sure, absolutely. Like you said, we estimate about six million Americans are served by WISPs today. These are folks who generally got started by putting their life savings on the line or going into credit card debt to start their first broadband business out of a frustration of the lack of quality broadband in their community. And a lot of these folks are still very small businesses. Our average member has fewer than 1500 subscribers and fewer than 10 employees. Most of them are just mom and pop broadband providers who are making a difference in their community. And since the telecom space tends to be dominated by very large companies my goal here at WISPA is just to try to create space and opportunity for our members, for these companies that have been doing such good things and to enable them do more, to tell their stories, to advocate for them since they don’t have the resources to advocate for themselves a lot of times and just to create a better environment for innovators and entrepreneurs and the internet service space.

Brad:

That’s fabulous. I mean that’s in line with everything that I have heard from the WISP community service providers, vendors, even down to the subscriber, specifically what are some of the things that, in delivering wireless internet service to a rural community, what are people other than the general internet and just broadband services, what are they trying to grasp through those services today that you see as so important and impactful to those communities?

ETI Backend Solutions

WISP BROADBAND SERVICE IMPACT ON RURAL COMMUNITIES

Claude:

Well, I think you hit on a really good point there that a lot of things that we do in our economy have increasingly gotten digital. Everything from government services, from renewing your driver’s license online, to kids doing homework which has migrated online and then opportunities like telemedicine and things of that nature. All of that requires an internet service connection. And if you don’t have that, you’re increasingly at a disadvantage when you’re trying to participate and compete in a digital economy. So it’s even less about the actual broadband connection itself. Then the opportunities that it makes available for folks in terms of being able to get online to work at home to engage in precision agriculture and all of the amazing things that are then available to folks as a result of that connectivity.

Brad:

And that’s a really good point. And I have heard stories from some of the service providers in WISPA organization where they said there are subscribers that sometimes are underserved or are unserved in the outskirts of their communities or counties. And in some cases, trying to finish school work for their family needing to drive to a public Wi-Fi to actually get access and complete those things.

Claude:

Yeah. It’s really been a big driver as far as I’ve heard from our members just not wanting their neighbors or even their own family to have to drive to a McDonald’s every night and sit outside in the parking lot for an hour or even more to let their kids do their homework. That’s for a lot of these folks who are technically inclined back and push you over the edge to starting a business to make sure that, that doesn’t happen for your kids or your community again.

Craig:

Claude, we actually heard attending a recent event, hosted by Next Century Cities. Some students who actually were in that boat. And it really drives the point home. You hear these stories colloquially, but then when you have a student in front of a group of several hundred people sharing their experience, it really is powerful.

Claude:

Yes, absolutely.

Brad:

The good news is that I know there are approximately 2000 WISPs operating today in the U.S. and it sounds like they’re growing at an average rate of about 15% a year, give or take. Groups like WISPA, of course, is trying to remedy that as quickly as possible.

 

WISPs – RURAL BROADBAND SERVICE GROWTH SECTOR

Claude:

Absolutely. It’s exciting to be in a growth sector of the internet industry and particularly one that’s focused on connecting the unconnected and providing competition where there wasn’t before. And it’s a great place to be. It’s a great group of folks to work with and for and a fantastic story to tell especially to folks who may not have heard of these folks just because they tend to not be very big on tooting their own horn for what they’re doing.

Craig:

Claude, there are many ways areas that are either unserved or underserved now have the ability to gain access to funding, to assist in the growth of service opportunities all across the country. Of course, one of them within the last several months, the announcement about the $20.4 billion in rural digital opportunity fund that really has gotten a lot of attention. Talk a little bit about how that impacts the mission of WISPA.

 

ASSISTING WISPS TO PARTICIPATE IN RURAL DIGITAL OPPORTUNITY FUND (RDOP)

Claude:

There’s a huge opportunity there, right? Anytime the government says they’re going to spend a lot of money to try to get broadband further out areas that don’t have it right now. It’s a good thing for rural consumers where we have a little bit of a challenge and have historically had a challenge in the past is that sometimes the government doesn’t necessarily understand the work that our members are doing. Again, we at WISPA are a small organization and our members are even smaller. So they typically haven’t taken government funding in the past. And a lot of them are so small that it’s a real burden to jump through the hoops or all of the application procedures and things like that in order to be able to even qualify for this funding in the first place.

Claude:

So a lot of our focus has been trying to educate policymakers on the quality and the needs of fixed wireless operators of WISPs and then on the other side to kind of assist our members as much as possible who want to participate in those kinds of funding programs to be able to expand on the good work that they’re doing even further. I don’t know. So yeah, it’s a big opportunity. It just can be a little bit challenging when you’re a really small business to be able to even participate in something like that. So like I said, there’s a lot of opportunities.

Brad:

Understood. That’s all great information. I am curious, and I wonder Claude if you could share with us and our audience how you specifically got involved in WISPA and what drew you to this and maybe a little bit about your background leading up to this too.

 

WISPA PRESIDENT’S JOURNEY – INTERSECTING TECHNOLOGY, COMMUNICATIONS, LAW & POLICY

Claude:

Yeah, sure. So, I’m a communications attorney by training, but I would say my interest in technology and in connectivity went back even before that. So when I was a poor college student in the need of a new computer and I figured out it would be more cost-effective for me to build it myself than to buy one that was already finished. And then went on from there to try and figure out if law was kind of the right career path for me working in a law firm and one of the managers there they had a need for new computers and for networking together. There are two remote offices and I was asked to assist in that. So setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) between a couple of law offices became part of my job description and that kind of influence where I wanted to go in terms of the intersection between technology, communications and law, and policy.

Claude:

And that’s kind of the direction that I took in my career. I worked for almost a decade at the FCC in a variety of different capacities from a junior staff attorney all the way up to advising the chairman and a commissioner on policy approaches. And then I learned that WISPA was looking for permanent leadership for the organization and given what I knew of WISPs and just the raw potential therefore for what they could do to really make a difference in the broadband market here in the U.S. I just had to throw my hat in the ring and I was lucky enough that the board decided to hire me. And this is where I’ve been for almost the past couple of years and it’s been a great job.

Brad:

Well, congratulations on that. I know that more recently there was an announcement that you had signed an extension with WISPA and you’ll be extending into the future and having the opportunity to work with everybody for some time to come now. That’s fabulous.

Claude:

I’m very excited about it. Even above and beyond just being employed, this is a great organization and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to make even more of a difference for WISPs and for connectivity in the U.S. more broadly.

Brad:

I’m particularly drawn to the story where you said you built your own machine because I think a lot of us in this industry have been at that point. And so as we try to grow this technology to underserved and unserved areas, we at some point in our lives, we’ve all had this issue too, this hurdle to get over. So I always love those stories whenever I walk into a vendor or WISP or talk to a subscriber and to hear their personal stories about that too.

 

HOW A WISP GETS STARTED

Claude:

Yeah, it’s true. It’s kind of the way that WISPs often get started. They’ll get quoted tens of thousands of dollars from one of the larger incumbents to extend that line out to their residents or business. And then that kind of spurs a question of, “Well, could I do it cheaper myself? Could I…” And then they go down the route of researching it and then they decide to start a business and it’s first them and their neighbors and then their neighbors, neighbors. And next thing you know they’re serving their entire community with its fixed word on its broadband and it’s kind of cool that way.

Brad:

Indeed, indeed. And speaking of better connectivity, I know this year is going to bring some newer spectrum availability in the industry. Can you talk a little bit about what’s coming down the pipe for us about mid-year?

 

 

WISP SPECTRUM ACCESS & AVAILABILITY FOR BETTER RURAL BROADBAND CONNECTIVITY

Claude:

Okay. One of the spectrum bands that we have been really focused on is the 3.5 gigahertz band or the CBRS band that is also known. And the reason why we’ve historically been really engaged in that is a lot of WISPs have those legacy licenses in the 3.65 gigahertz band, which is being rolled into the licensing scheme for CBRS. In order to be able to continue service, they need to have continued access to that spectrum. And then there is the opportunity for expanded access on sort of a lightly licensed basis and then also on a licensed basis. So WISPA is very excited about participating in that band from life, from our members but it’s also kind of complicated, so trying to figure out the best way to educate folks on the business case for it either just using it in the first place or even more so participating in the spectrum auction that’s coming down the pike in June.

Claude:

That’s something that we’ve been very focused on. And we’ve also been very focused on getting the rules right for small rural providers for other spectrum bands that are coming down the pike. We talk about the C band, we talk about 5.9 gigahertz, six gigahertz. Those are all spectrum bands that are our members are very interested in having access to. And I think they make a really good case for needing to have rules that accommodate the needs of small rural providers. Because, like I hear from a lot of our members who tend to be… They use an unlicensed spectrum predominantly. And that’s not necessarily because they think that, that’s necessarily the best tool for the job. One of the great things about WISPs is they use every tool in the toolkit to get people connected.

Claude:

But it’s access to protected or semi-protected spectrum is unavailable to them. And I remember visiting Micrologic, which is a WISP out in Buckhannon, West Virginia. And as you probably know, West Virginia is a place that’s notorious for pretty poor wireless coverage. And I was sitting down with their CEO and he was telling me all about the gigahertz of licensed spectrum that was in the area that he was trying to serve. He had access to none of it and nobody else was using it. And he was telling me about the amazing things that he could do if he could have access to that kind of spectrum.

Claude:

But instead, it was sewn up by other providers who weren’t using it. And that’s a similar story that I hear from a lot of our members who are looking to do great things for their community and want to offer more service and faster speeds but are just hamstrung by lack of spectrum access. And it’s my job and to try to make sure that when those conversations are going on in Washington, that there is a space at the table for WISPs and that they’re thought of when we’re thinking of the future effect from the policy.

Craig:

This is the Broadband Bunch. Our guest today, Claude Aiken, President, and CEO at WISPA, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. When you talk about that auction coming up, Claude, to say that there is great interest would be the understatement of the year because you’re talking about a substantial amount of revenue that is going to be generated by that auction.

Claude:

Yeah, no, absolutely. There’s great interest on the government side and in getting revenue and there’s great interest on the industry side and gaining spectrums. So that’s absolutely true.

WISPA – ENSURING A SEAT AT THE GOVERNMENT FUNDING TABLE FOR WISPs

Brad:

And Claude, you made the comment just a little bit ago about making sure that these WISPs had a seat at the table regarding the FCC considerations. What are you seeing in terms of that legislation coming down in support of the WISPs of America?

Claude:

I think we’re optimistic but also realistic, right? Part of the challenge with being the organization that represents the little guys is we don’t have the resources to run around DC and as much of the large organizations do, we have a great story and we get out there and tell it as much as possible. But we just can’t really match the lobbying budget of multi-billion-dollar companies. The unfortunate truth of that is they get tell their story a lot and we only get to tell it a little.  We hear a lot about this race to 5G and how we need to make a spectrum available for 5G. But when you dig a little bit deeper there a lot of times it ends up being in doing spectrum policy the way that we’ve done it in the past, which has not been optimal for WISPs. I’m optimistic that policymakers are starting to get it.

THE DIGITAL DIVIDE SHOULD BE A TOP POLICY PRIORITY

Claude:

They’re getting that there is this community of wireless operators that don’t look like your traditional large or regional mobile wireless operator and their needs may be a little bit different. But then at the same time, there’s the pull to do things the way they have been done because it’s worked for the wireless incumbents in the past. So why wouldn’t it work again? I think that’s kind of the challenge that we’re facing. And there’s a lot of folks that are really recognizing that the digital divide is and should be a top policy priority. We’re just trying to similarly get folks to realize that in addition to throwing dollars at the problem, you could make a huge difference by just engaging in some smart peck of spectrum policy as well.

Craig:

We can’t let you go without talking about two of the biggest items on your calendar as an organization and the first one coming up just next month in Dallas WISPAmerica and I think Brad, you’re going to be involved in that as well.

Brad:

I will be there. Yeah.

 

WISPAPALOOZA AND WISPAMERICA  – WHERE WISPs GATHER

Claude:

I think we hold a couple of decent size trade shows every year where WISPs and vendors wIll get together to enjoy each other’s company, to educate one another and to hear from some of the experts in the business to help their own businesses do even better. So, excited about WISPAmerica that’s coming up in Dallas and we’ll be really happy to see you there Brad and hope we can connect on the ground. And then we have WISPAPALOOZA, which is every October in Vegas, which tends to be our bigger one. And looking forward to maybe seeing you there as well.

Brad:

I love that name WISPAPALOOZA. I do.  That’s an all-time great.

Craig:

It really is, it’s fabulous. This has been a fantastic visit. We greatly appreciate being able to visit with you today, Claude. We appreciate what the organization is doing and when we talk about an organization focused on the providers that are making a difference in the day to day lives, for those that have been unserved and underserved, it really is rewarding and we appreciate what you did.

Claude:

Well, thank you, gentlemen. I really do appreciate you having me on and I hope we get an opportunity to chat again soon.

Craig:

Absolutely. And we appreciate you being now a member of the Broadband Bunch. Thanks so much for letting us be a part of your day. We will see you next time. This is the Broadband Bunch.