This is the transcript for episode 341 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Alan Fitzpatrick about his company, a fixed wireless Internet service provider, and about the promises and challenges of wireless Internet access solutions in general. Listen to the episode here.
Alan Fitzpatrick: We have over 1,100 people on the sign up list — 1,100. We have done zero marketing. They are just clamoring for high speed Internet.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 341 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week, Christopher and our research associate Katie Kienbaum are in North Carolina visiting folks in the communities of Albemarle, Fuquay-Varina, and Jacksonville. They're working with NC Hearts Gigabit and the North Carolina League of Municipalities in efforts to reach out and set up those community meetings so people can discuss and learn about better connectivity in rural areas and smaller cities. While at the first meeting, Christopher sat down to visit with Alan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Open Broadband, a relatively new fixed wireless Internet service provider. Alan and Christopher talk about the beginnings of Open Broadband and how this wireless ISP differs from the traditional concept of a WISP. They also talk about how Alan and his partner came to the conclusion that they would incorporate wireless solutions into the technology they offer and the challenges that they face. Learn more about the company at openbb.net. Now here's Christopher from Albemarle, North Carolina, with Alan Fitzpatrick from Open Broadband.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, live edition. We're here in Albemarle, North Carolina, where we just had the first of three Let's Connect events, and one of our speakers for two of the nights is Alan Fitzpatrick, the CEO of Open Broadband. Welcome back to the show, Alan.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Thanks Chris. Nice to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: So you were here before when we were talking about NC Hearts Gigabit, which you also were a co-founder of. Since we're not gonna talk too much about that and people can go back and listen to that show, just give us a ten second summary of what NC Hearts Gigabit is.
Alan Fitzpatrick: It is an advocacy group that wants to roll out high speed gigabit Internet for everyone.
Christopher Mitchell: That's great. And what is Open Broadband?
Alan Fitzpatrick: Open Broadband is an ISP that was created by myself and a co-founder a couple of years ago. We had recognized the same problem that many of your listeners recognize — that broadband is elusive in some of the rural markets.
Christopher Mitchell: Now I just want to jump in before you go too further because I wanted to say — I've imagined this moment in which you two were, like, sitting there over beers and saying, "Why don't we just do it?"
Alan Fitzpatrick: That's pretty much how it was.
Christopher Mitchell: I wanted to get there before you did.
Alan Fitzpatrick: I was working at a data center. So I was the COO for DC74 Data Centers in Charlotte, and we were in the process of selling the company to Lumos Networks — a very amicable sale. It was something we were trying to make happen. And my co-founder Kent Winrich was in the process of leaving Salisbury; he was running the broadband network Fibrant at the time. And he and I were having a beer, and we were deciding what do we do next in our career. We're too young to retire, and we're both telecom experts — what should we do next? Well, like any good entrepreneur, you start off with a problem to solve.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Alan Fitzpatrick: If you can solve a problem with a better solution, you're more likely to be successful in a new business. So we were reading report after report, many that you had published.
Christopher Mitchell: And this is — sorry — 2016, 2017?
Alan Fitzpatrick: 2016. Yeah, sort of the summer or fall of 2016. And we just kept reading all of this information on how many Americans were being left behind. They didn't have access to broadband (25 Megabit speed definition). Of course we've seen what's happened with the FCC since then, but the problem hasn't gone away. And we looked at each other and we said, "We know how to provide an Internet network. We can solve this problem." How do we do it cost effectively was our next question. You know, there's a reason why the incumbents haven't solved it yet, and one of the things we came to the conclusion on was trying to use legacy technologies to solve this problem wasn't going to work.
Christopher Mitchell: And so that's like copper networks and . . . really, copper networks networks.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Really, copper networks and satellite.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, satellite. Right. Because in some ways coax, it's not what we're probably gonna want in 30 years, but for the next 10 years still, it actually seems in many places to be okay.
Alan Fitzpatrick: It does. In fact, cable I think has 85 percent of the broadband market in the country because it works and it's fast and people like it and it's the best option of what people have, if you don't have access to fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Alan Fitzpatrick: So we looked at the different technologies and said, well, the only real cost effective way to serve these sparsely populated communities was a wireless solution — unless you're funded by the government or you have some kind of grant funding to deploy fiber. Which would be great, right? We would all love to have that. If you really have to make a business case on it and you have to be profitable, the only way we could see doing it was fixed wireless.
Christopher Mitchell: So you jumped in. And so, one of my early memories of this, of Open Broadband, was a water tower. And so, I'm curious of how you got started. What was your first customer?
Alan Fitzpatrick: Our first customer was an orthodontist who wanted gigabit service. Talk about a challenging first customer. The first customer was, like, gigabit — symmetrical gigabit, up and down.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and you're looking to do this with wireless technology in 2016.
Alan Fitzpatrick: In 2016, right. Which is brand new, right? Siklu was a big maker of antennas back then.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and you can do that, but typically gigabit radios are going to be so costly, we only really see them on top of apartment buildings where you can spread the cost across multiple people.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Correct. So, I remember when we bought our first gigabit antennas. We really had a long discussion. It's like, this is how much money we have in the bank account, this is how much the antennas cost — are we really gonna do this or not? You know, we were a private company; this is our money. You can think of it as spending your own personal money to do this, so it was a risk. But that customer is still in service. I spoke to him the other day. He loves his gigabit service.
Christopher Mitchell: I'll bet. Yeah. You know, my parents just switched to gigabit. They had been on Frontier for the longest time, and I think it may have been Christmas. We were leaving, and they live next to a major county road. And it was dark out, my son is already falling asleep in the back of the car, and I'm driving out the street. And so their driveway runs parallel to this major road. I'm driving out. And out of the corner of my eye, I see this black sign and the word "Internet" on it. And I was like, whoa. I hit the brakes, I back up, and I jump out of the car to take a picture of the sign so I can look it up later. And it's a wireless company, a WISP, and they had just — they're advertising Internet on my parent's yard with a little yard sign without permission. But you know, I was just sort of like, oh, well this is interesting. So my parents took them up on it, and they're loving it. It's way better than what Frontier can do, and the DSLAM is on their property.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Wow. I tell you, the WISP industry is not that well known. There's over 1,200 wireless ISPs, WISPs, across the country, and collectively, I think there's five percent market share in what we're doing.
Christopher Mitchell: I think one of the challenges with WISPs is that a number of them started with good intentions, but to some extent, when you start succeeding if you're not ready to scale, it gets real hard real fast, right? A few customers is probably easy relatively, but then you start having to figure out how to solve all kinds of problems. So I think one of the challenges is just that people have a bad experience with a WISP, they might think all WISPs are bad.
Alan Fitzpatrick: That's a great point. And scalability is the number one issue. I think you hit that dead on. One of the benefits of the background that I have and my co-founder has is we came out of the industry where we did scale. We worked for major communication companies. So when we set up our — I almost hesitate to say WISP. We are fixed wireless last mile, but we consider ourselves a hybrid carrier because the core of our network is a data center.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay.
Alan Fitzpatrick: The data center has 70 gigabit of capacity upstream. We have 12 fiber carriers hard in 24 by seven days. I mean, think of all the power of a data center. We lease fiber optics with one of 12 different carriers to get out into the market. None of that is wireless. It's only the last mile that's wireless.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. This is a profile of the modern WISP, you might say. You know, there's probably multiple Facebook groups that are just dealing with WISPs that are getting into the fiber space. You may be members of multiple ones, I don't know.
Alan Fitzpatrick: No, you're right. In the past, an entrepreneur might see an opportunity: "Hey, I can buy a local circuit from one of the telcos, and I can distribute it wirelessly the last mile, make some money on it, and get people fast service." And it works to a certain point, but like you say, it doesn't scale. So we had to do the data center route to really make a scalable solution.
Christopher Mitchell: And so I'm curious now, what's been your most challenging problem that you've had to solve so far in running the WISP?
Alan Fitzpatrick: Keeping people patient.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay.
Alan Fitzpatrick: We have launched in markets, and as soon as our service is available, we get so many people signing up that we can't serve them fast enough.
Christopher Mitchell: What does that mean? Is that tens, hundreds?
Alan Fitzpatrick: So we have one county in North Carolina. We're building the network now. We have not launched. We don't have our first customer up yet. The first customer won't be til April. We have over 1,100 people on the signup list — 1,100. We have done zero marketing. They are just clamoring for high speed Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: You haven't put any signs in my parents' yard?
Alan Fitzpatrick: No, we haven't. No radios, but nothing. So there's so many people waiting, what we have now is people calling us up every day: "When am I going to get service. Take a look at my address. But when am I going to get turned on?" And trying to keep everybody patient, saying we're building the network is going to take time, our first customer will be turned up in April, and then we have to be careful they don't think they'll be turned up in April. It's like, okay, the first customer turns up in April. We have the capacity to turn up 100 a month. We have over 1,100 on the wait list. We're talking about a year backlog. Trying to manage the backlog is actually a problem for us.
Christopher Mitchell: Well no, one of the things that I wonder about and one of the things that makes me skeptical about wireless is, I joke with my parents, don't tell any of your neighbors how good it is. Because they were advertised I think 30/5 (30 down, five up), and they're paying a real reasonable fee for that for being in an area that's not served by cable, and they're getting like 35 down, 45 up. And I was saying don't tell anyone because the more people you tell in your sector, the more you're going to have congestion and that sort of thing. So how do you deal with, when you start dealing with the volume of customers you're talking about, having a high quality product to each one?
Alan Fitzpatrick: You're absolutely right. You have to have that for long term success. So for us, it's managing the fiber backhaul, making sure that that's not being congested, and we're getting back to a data center that's not going to have a congestion issue ever as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. You have a — fundamentally it's the last mile problem, right? I mean that's your quintessential problem.
Alan Fitzpatrick: So then it's a question of how many customers per antenna that you're deploying and making sure you're not overwriting that. I always viewed the issue of congestion as being an engineering problem that's fairly easy to solve. It's solved by putting money into additional hardware and capacity.
Christopher Mitchell: But what does that mean? Like, if you're on a water tower or you're on a different tower, you presumably can't just put n radios up, right? I mean at a certain point, you have all kinds of problems with interference and things like that, so you have to put up new towers? I mean, what does that look like?
Alan Fitzpatrick: We like to do a micro PoPs, which are sort of the WISP version of a microcell that, you know, a 5G network would have. So you're putting something closer to a neighborhood or a street and then serving communities off of that location. And that could be off of a church steeple. It could be off of a three story building. It doesn't have to be that high. And then from there, you have a point going back to the water tower.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So you're getting pretty close to the home then.
Alan Fitzpatrick: And the closer you get to the home, the better speeds you can get. So one of the things about 5G, as I'm sure you know, is in order to get these really high speeds, you better be really close to the antenna.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Same in our business. We can offer faster speeds the closer we are.
Christopher Mitchell: And so, do you have a standardized package then or is it pretty variable based on where people are?
Alan Fitzpatrick: It is a little variable. So we offer the same packages, but some people don't qualify for the fastest speed simply because of the terrain or where they live.
Christopher Mitchell: And do you have areas then in which — you know, these 1,100 people, are there people among them that you just can't reach, or are you able to get to everyone that you want to get to?
Alan Fitzpatrick: There's some we can't reach.
Christopher Mitchell: Is it that they're on the wrong side of a hill or something like that?
Alan Fitzpatrick: Correct. There's just too much obstruction that even with the technology we're using, we just can't serve them. Our best case is we try to reach 90 percent of a community, and there's just gonna be 10 percent that are going to be very, very difficult.
Christopher Mitchell: When you look into the future of how the market's going, the technology is going, do you think in three years we'll be able to reach five percent more or do you have any sense of —
Alan Fitzpatrick: I think so, and that is the way the technology is going. We're seeing the wireless get faster and do a better job propagating through vegetation. 5G is leading a lot of that, but a lot of the traditional WISP antennas and radios have gotten so much better over time.
Christopher Mitchell: So when I'm up there on stage talking about how we are ultimately going to get a fiber to every home, do you think I'm wrong? Do you think we're going to get to a point where in 10 years we'll say, "You know what? Wireless will cover the others who we just haven't gotten to yet."
Alan Fitzpatrick: I think it'll be a hybrid. I think that in the dense areas, fiber is awesome, right? I would have fiber at my house if I could, but it just does not make economic sense in the more sparsely populated areas. I think wireless is a good solution for that, as long as you can provide the speeds and the quality.
Christopher Mitchell: So the challenge there, and this is my biggest hesitation — I mean, like I said, three or four years ago, I was looking at this and I was thinking fixed wireless just can't cut. It is not good enough. You know, it's a bridge, but it's a mediocre bridge, you know, kind of in the way I feel about satellite now. Satellite, you might be able to get 100 megs pulling off of that, but still, it's not a high-quality experience. Fixed wireles has really come a long way, but I'm concerned about the 10 percent of areas you can't reach. And so there's a question: do we just let those areas go back to wildlife? Because those home values are really gonna suffer, presumably.
Alan Fitzpatrick: It's a shame. We need to find a solution for that 10 percent, I would agree. Regardless of technology, we've got to find a way to do it.
Christopher Mitchell: Not knowing much about the technology. If you had carte blanche to install more micro PoPs and things like that, would you be able to, for instance, run fiber from a nearby micro PoP to connect that home, or you know, something else? Is that something you've looked into?
Alan Fitzpatrick: We could. We actually have.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Alan Fitzpatrick: So, if we are close enough to the customers, one thought is instead of deploying 50 antennas to cover the 50 houses, well let's just put in fiber and just bury it.
Christopher Mitchell: So you have fiber — wireless fiber?
Alan Fitzpatrick: Yes. That's a model that we have actually pursued. We haven't deployed one yet, but we are looking at it.
Christopher Mitchell: I was talking to someone, I don't know, seven years ago. It was before Longmont launched, and that was a question of there was a nearby area and the costs of getting fiber there were extreme. And I was like, well why don't you just do like a mega radio link and then do fiber from there. And you know, some point in the next 10 or 15 years, you're going to repave the road or something and rip it up then.
Alan Fitzpatrick: And if you think of it, the telecommunications companies were using wireless in their long distance network for years and years and years.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, sure. That was Sprint, right?
Alan Fitzpatrick: Yeah. Sprint was the first company to make digital all fiber network. AT&T, you can still drive in rural areas today and see these big antennas on AT&T buildings that used to be the long haul network.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And actually, I said Sprint, but I was thinking MCI, right? That was MCI's model, I think, in the seventies, wasn't it?
Alan Fitzpatrick: To go fiber?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, to . . .
Alan Fitzpatrick: Well Sprint had the pin drop which was fiber too.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, no. So they had that, but I think MCI was — and thank you for giving me this word in the part that Lisa just edited out. MCI was brilliant because they sort of subverted long distance calling by dabbling in arbitrage and using wireless to do long distance at a lower cost and fundamentally setting in motion the end of Ma Bell probably. But yeah, you're right, there's a long history of this.
Alan Fitzpatrick: So I think that evolution over time is going to choose the best technology for the right situation, and we shouldn't get hung up, I don't think, on whether it's fiber or wireless. Certain things are going to apply in certain situations.
Christopher Mitchell: No, I think you're right, and I think my concern is — and fixed wireless has come further than I thought it would; I'm still worried about the reliability. I mean, I assume that you live in fear of a glitch during the Super Bowl when you have a bunch of customers streaming it and it's just like key play, that's when the wind blows wrong and a bunch of people have, you know, a little bit of interference. Because I feel like people don't appreciate what five nines is of reliability.
Alan Fitzpatrick: You're right. The WISP industry today operates on four nines reliability. That's pretty darn good.
Christopher Mitchell: That is very good.
Alan Fitzpatrick: But if you look at the specs on Ubiquiti and Mimosa and the different equipment, you'll see four nines of reliability. Now the carrier still has to make sure they have generators and battery backup and all the other things we have to do to ensure service quality. But you're right, we can't afford to be down during the Super Bowl, just like the cable company can't afford to be down at that time.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I've heard stories of a small cable company that had a glitch during the Super Bowl and lost, like, all of their customers the next day.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Oh Gosh. I heard that Google Fiber had an outage during the World Series when the Royals were playing.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, brutal.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Or maybe it was the Chiefs. It was one of the Kansas City teams.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, no, I think it would have been the Royals.
Alan Fitzpatrick: The Royals were in the World Series like three years ago or so, before they fell apart.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Yeah.
Alan Fitzpatrick: But I think that actually, during one of the Royals games in the World Series, Google Fiber was our in Kansas City, which is awful.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's going to hurt. One of the things that we hear from Monkeybrains, which is a WISP that I've long been fascinated by in San Francisco, proving that you can have a very successful WISP in a very urban environment, is that they have customers who say we want fiber, and Monkeybrains will deliver wireless while they're getting the fiber lined up. And after a month or two, the customer will say, "You know what? The wireless is really just fine. It's meeting all of our needs." I'm guessing that you've had similar sorts of experiences.
Alan Fitzpatrick: We have. And we've had businesses with fiber that still bought our wireless service. So one might say, "Well, wait a minute. If you have fiber, why would you need wireless?" Well first of all, they wanted is as a redundant option because their fiber had been cut like three times in the past six months.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. Is there anything else we should talk about before we wrap up.
Alan Fitzpatrick: We're seeing a groundswell of support for broadband, and I think part of it is being driven by 5G. I mean every place you read, and I guess we're attuned to it because we're in the industry, 5G this and 5G that and what is 5G? It's a marketing term that really means nothing, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And it just reminds me of the joke, there must be a horse in there somewhere. There's so much —
Alan Fitzpatrick: There's so much hype about it.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.
Alan Fitzpatrick: I like the hype because it gets people thinking about speed. It gets people thinking about broadband. It makes them compare what they have today versus their desired state. So the more we can have that conversation the better, so I applaud the whole 5G movement for sparking the conversation, just like Google Fiber sparked —
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you, cynical marketers.
Alan Fitzpatrick: So maybe I'm a little cynical on the 5G term, but they're driving the conversation in the right direction, just like Google Fiber did when they rolled out. So getting people to think about broadband is a good thing.
Christopher Mitchell: So someone who's listening, they're thinking, well, I'm going to go start my WISP right now. What should they know before they do that?
Alan Fitzpatrick: You better figure out a good cost effective model. You had better be prepared to work around the clock. You have to come up with a reliable, scalable platform, and it's not as easy as what it sounds like at all. "Just buy an antenna off the shelf and attach it to a connection."
Christopher Mitchell: I was just going to say that's not one of the products you can just buy.
Alan Fitzpatrick: No, and you got to think about billing and customer care, and what are you going to do when the customer calls you at 8 p.m. at night and they can't watch their Netflix? Do you have a technician that's going to go out to their house and resolve that?
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Are you staffed for that? Are you funded for that?
Christopher Mitchell: Those are really good questions. Thank you so much, Alan. I really appreciate your time as we all contemplate a long drive back after this wonderful event tonight.
Alan Fitzpatrick: Thanks, Chris. Great to be here.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Alan Fitzpatrick of Open Broadband talking together from Albemarl,e North Carolina, at the first of three local community meetings. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research from all our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 341 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.