Etheric Networks plans use of CBRS spectrum for fixed wireless access

Etheric Networks, a provider of fixed wireless access (FWA) in the San Francisco Bay Area, secured 21 priority access licenses (PALs) in the recent FCC auction of CBRS spectrum. It got licenses in seven counties that span a mix from rural regions to upscale areas near San Jose and the Los Altos hills. The company spent about $367,000 for its PALs.

Etheric has about 900 business subscribers and about 1,700 residential subscribers. Many of the residential customers are high-tech workers whose connection requirements are “more like light business accounts,” said Etheric CEO Alexander Hagen.

Etheric plans to use its PALs to upgrade its FWA offering.

The company’s wireless footprint covers about 8,000 square miles and includes towers, dark fiber and microwave hops.

It rents towers in the Bay Area, and many of those towers are along the ridges of two mountain ranges — the East Bay Ridge and the Santa Cruz mountains. 

“We have towers on both those ridge lines at about 2,500-foot to 3,000-foot elevations, one every eight miles,” said Hagen. “That has worked incredibly well.”

He said many FWA providers have tried to make a go of it in the Bay Area, but many of them have gone out of business. He attributes Etheric’s success to the location of its towers on mountain ridge lines and also to the fact that Etheric has written code to optimize its FWA service.

Software is key

“We wrote a massive amount of code for optimizing the network,” he said. “That’s why we survived and grew because of the ridge-line combined with tuning software. We developed a lot of optimization code for ideal channel widths, frequencies and power levels.”

The company’s code framework “is very similar to software-defined networking,” said Hagen. It has an API for communicating with the back office functions, and it has RF and GIS APIs to communicate with other networks.

The company uses its software systems for achieving ‘equilibrium’ — the optimal match of resources to load. And the software also does demand planning; it helps to determine where to build next, and it assists with provisioning and quoting.

Network layout

In addition to towers, the company leases a dark fiber metro backbone from Zayo. And it uses licensed microwave and millimeter hops from its data center and fiber-buliding rings to connect its fixed wireless tower network.

It deploys Ubiquiti devices on the towers, and it writes its own code to run the devices. “We have system housekeeping code on the network devices, which are basically embedded Linux computers,” said Hagen.

Etheric has also worked with Cambium and MicroTik gear and with mmWave equipment from Siklu.

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Rather than using LTE technology, Etheric’s FWA service uses proprietary technology, namely Ubiquiti's LTU, a radio that has the quality of a licensed microwave radio with gigabit packet processing.

“We look at performance first,” said Hagen. “How much bandwidth can the system achieve? For our purposes the rural killer is the Ubiquiti LTU, and the urban is the Cambium Medusa. But all that is about to change with the advent of 3GPP in the 5G CBRS specification. WISPs now have an incentive to make the investment in what until recently were multimillion-dollar cores. In the 5 GHz band this trend toward standardization will likely gain strength.”

For equipment in customers’ homes and businesses, Etheric uses small antennas for short distances in mmWave spectrum. And for 5 GHz spectrum it installs a 2-foot dish on the premises with a device inside the dwelling.

With its FWA upgrades, the company expects to see several hundred megabits capacity per user, with a download and upload goal of 100 Mbps.

Etheric has not yet hired one of the SAS administrators to deploy a service in its new CBRS spectrum. “Right now, we’re in the RDOF auction and C-band auction,” said Hagen. But the company is “having some strategic talks about working with other CBRS PAL holders to have a common approach.”