WeLink turns up mmWave fixed wireless in new markets

Major U.S. carriers aren’t the only ones hoping to challenge cable with fixed wireless service for home internet. Startup WeLink has rolled out fixed wireless service using unlicensed millimeter wave spectrum across the markets of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, promising straight-forward pricing and symmetrical gigabit speeds.

Founded in 2018, WeLink already had active service in parts of Las Vegas but now is ready to serve the entire metro area, as well as nearby Henderson, Nevada.

Utah-based WeLink nabbed $185 million in funding from Digital Alpha earlier this year that brought with it a close strategic relationship with Cisco. The service uses mmWave spectrum in the 60 GHz-70 GHz bands with 802.11ay silicon technology, and customers’ homes to extend coverage signals in an outdoor mesh broadband setup. A new partnership with Amazon in September means two eero Pro 6 routers with tri-band Wi-Fi 6 for enhanced in-home Wi-Fi coverage are also now included in a flat $70 monthly price for service.

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Since the January investment, the company has been building up infrastructure, including network, data centers and personnel to prep for market launches, according to WeLink CEO and co-founder Kevin Ross. Before WeLink, Ross co-founded another internet service startup, Vivint Wireless.

Network launch work involved hiring and training sales staff and field representatives, acquiring warehouse space, and items with longer lead times like securing fiber connectivity and points of presence to place equipment on. WeLink uses existing fiber and rooftop sites, sometimes leasing dark fiber, as launch points for service in nearby neighborhoods.

Ross declined to disclose how many customers WeLink has at this point, but said it’s been able to “dramatically reduce” what he had categorized as a huge waiting list as of January in the Las Vegas area.

“We are now adding a substantial amount of subscribers on a monthly basis,” he added. “Our customer base is growing rapidly.”

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And the company is poised for more expansion.  Plans call for up to seven additional markets in the next 18-24 months, focused on large metro areas and their surrounding communities but locations are still in the works.

“Expanding wireless broadband to new cities requires careful planning and execution, and we are still in the early stages of our selection process,” Ross noted.

Target on cable

WeLink’s aim is to offer competitively priced service that matches or outpaces performance of cable companies touting gigabit speeds, and so far, customer feedback has been one of the bright spots.

WeLink costs $70 with a two-year contract or $80 on a month-by-month basis for downlink and uplink gigabit speeds (up to 940 Mbps), with no fees or installation costs. After two years the price drops (rather than starting with a low intro price that gets hiked up over time). Ross said the eero Wi-Fi routers provide an upgraded experience from the earlier in-home set-up and capacity delivers bandwidth to support more than 75 connected devices per home.

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“The key is it’s working well,” Ross said, noting that aside from pricing WeLink’s been focused on consumer concerns like a compact footprint and power emissions. WeLink network receivers use small mmWave antennas affixed to the home that are 4.5-inches by 4.5-inches, to blend in better with neighborhoods.

WeLink receivers have a small footprint to blend in. (WeLink) 

The combination of new technology with building networks in a way that makes deployments doable on a faster timeline and keeps operational costs low, where service in a neighborhood doesn’t start until signups hit a critical mass, is how WeLink can keep prices competitive and have high performance in the hopes of standing out even against fiber or gigabit cable.

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Ross said a recent customer survey showed leading net promoter scores (NPS) when compared to the likes of Comcast. And once customers get WeLink, subscribers tend to stick around.

“Well over 90% of the customers that cancel, cancel because of moving. Despite competing in areas where there’s fiber to the home,” Ross said, noting Las Vegas in particular is a flagship market for CenturyLink and has a fair amount of FTTH coverage. Still, he said the majority of WeLink customers are coming from gigabit cable.

In areas like Tucson and Phoenix, WeLink is entering where there’s often only one choice for high-speed symmetrical tiers.

“This is really the first time these consumers have had an option other than Cox to get the speeds that we’re delivering,” Ross said.

Cox Communications offers a service tier with up to 1 Gbps download speeds for around $100 per month with a one-year contract, not including taxes or fees. Upload speeds go up to 35 Mbps. The price increases to $120 after the first year of service.

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T-Mobile has put a target on cable as well with its own fixed wireless offering, which uses licensed LTE and 5G spectrum. T-Mobile dropped the price of its service by $10 in an October promotion from the usual cost of $60 per month, offering typical speeds between 35-115 Mbps - with its eye on rural markets and aiming for 500,000 customers by the end of 2021.  Verizon’s 5G Home fixed wireless is live in parts of 87 cities, targeting more densely populated areas.

There are also startups like Starry Internet, which is using 802.11 technology for home broadband and charging $50 per month for service in its own challenge to cable. Last month Boston-based Starry announced it was going public with FirstMark Horizon Acquisition Corp.