Bluespan mixes fiber with FWA to boost deployments in Arizona, Washington

Bluespan, a fiber and fixed wireless access (FWA) provider, is working with Tarana Wireless to expand its broadband coverage across Arizona and Washington state. Thus far, it’s reached more than 750,000 passings by combining the benefits of fiber with Tarana’s G1 fixed wireless technology.

The motivation behind this hybrid approach, Bluespan CEO Scott Stace told Fierce, is to efficiently deliver “fiber-like speeds” to customers without carrying the high costs of building out expansive fiber networks. Specifically, Bluespan uses millimeter wave to cover high-density areas, but then taps into Tarana’s system to “edge out” its more rural networks.

“So what we do is we build fiber out to an area and then distribute to the home that last mile over the fixed wireless solution,” said Stace. That fiber is being deployed to Tarana’s G1-equipped towers. Resound Networks is another fixed wireless provider that’s taking advantage of Tarana’s G1 solution.

Tarana’s technology also removes speed caps on densely populated networks. In Flagstaff, for instance, Bluespan now offers plans with speeds up to 500 Mbps. The G1 solution “has been game changing in this area that had never seen more than 5 or 10 Mbps,” as Stace stated at the time of the announcement.

Bluespan has actively deployed these hybrid networks for the past six to nine months, Stace said, with a general goal to add “at least one or two new sites” each month. That work also includes upgrading areas with Bluespan’s legacy fixed wireless technology to the G1 platform.

“I would say we’ve got 30 to 40 new sites in the hopper that are either in some various form of engineering or deployment,” he said. “My goal is to have all of these deployed within the next 12 to 16 months.”

Stace added Bluespan is striving to hit an additional 500,000 passings this year.

Breaking down the split between fiber and fixed wireless, Stace estimated 90% of Bluespan’s expansion is dedicated to fixed wireless, with the other 10% allocated towards fiber. While Bluespan employs an in-house construction team for fiber builds, Stace pointed out those deployments still require considerable time and money.

“Because we’re a smaller company, we move a little slower,” he said. “For fiber-to-the-home projects, we can’t deploy in efficiency the way we can [in] wireless.”

Construction, along with utility access, are the biggest impediments to building more fiber, Stace explained. Fixed wireless, on the other hand, doesn’t take as much time to deploy (so it can get new customers quicker) but demands more support as well as line of sight access.

“Fiber is pretty rock solid once you put it in,” he added. “If you build it right and design it right, it’s relatively low maintenance and low support.”

Bluespan’s coverage is mostly based in Arizona, with Stace noting the operator is in all markets except for Yuma and the greater Phoenix area. In Washington, Bluespan offers service in a small area of Seattle as well as in Snoqualmie Pass, Easton and Cle Elum. As for future coverage plans, Stace said Bluespan is looking into other areas in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and possibly Utah.

Geographically, the operator’s current markets are vastly different from one another, he continued. Arizona ranges from mountainous tree areas to high desert territories. The mountainous locations are a bit easier to manage since Bluespan can use towers with extended height there. Areas with a high density of trees are much more concerning, since they can hinder signal quality.

“We don’t have a lot of topography challenges only because we’ve been doing [fixed wireless] for a great deal of time,” Stace said. “We don’t tend to put up sites that we don’t know are going to work well for us.”

Asked if Bluespan has considered public funding for its expansion, Stace stated while he’s not against pursuing grants or other funding opportunities, his experience is that there are “a lot of hoops and a lot of bureaucracy to jump through to get that money.”

Also, “it’s not a fair process” for smaller providers, with Stace pointing out those funds typically go to MSOs and other major operators who are more well-versed in the grant-seeking process.

“I understand that if you have people on your team and you have consultants that can do it, it’s not a bad idea to go after public funds,” he said. “But it does come with strings, and it does come with a lot of work to go into it…which we’re not well equipped to do so we’re focusing on what we are well equipped to do.”