Industry Voices: WISP industry 'hot as ever'

Industry Voices are op-eds from industry experts or analysts invited to contribute by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.

As of 2021, there were an estimated 2,800 fixed wireless-centric ISPs serving 6.9 million subscribers, with the number growing to 12.7 million by the end of 2025, the Carmel Group reported in 2021. This growing subscribership is fueled by improvements in fixed wireless technologies, increased access to spectrum, and increased government funding for rural buildouts.

“This industry is hot as ever,” said Richard Bernhardt, VP of government affairs for WISPA, during the opening session of WISPAmerica 2024, keynoted by WISPA CEO David Zumwalt and Wisper ISP CEO Nathan Stooke.

“AT&T, T-Mobile, all the major cable providers, the satellite industry – they’re all looking at you,” Bernhardt said. “When I started in this industry 15 years ago, they weren’t looking at you.”

Getting wispy

WISPAmerica 2024 (Oklahoma City, March 4-7), organized by the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), hosted over 1,200 people, and featured dozens of conference sessions and 130 tech vendor booths.

WISPA's main event is WISPAPALOOZA an conference annually in Las Vegas. WISPAmerica events are held annually in March in locations such as Oklahoma City, Louisville and New Orleans. (I have attended the last three WISPAmerica events.)

David Zumwalt and Jeff Moore
WISPA CEO David Zumwalt (left) meets with Wave7 Research Principal Jeff Moore. (Wave7 Research)

In Oklahoma City, I had a chance to chat with WISPA President Zumwalt at the event (see photo on the right). One thing he made clear is that more WISPs are deploying fiber. He added that while there is still a strong presence for wireless equipment providers at WISPA events, there is also more of a presence for vendors selling fiber-related products. This is consistent with what I saw on the show floor.

This is not new. After attending WISPAmerica 2023 in Louisville, Kentucky, I wrote that more WISPs were adding fiber to their offerings. Based on conversations with WISP executives at the conference this month, I came to the same conclusion.

Last year, I informally polled WISP executives about why more fiber was being deployed. The top reason cited was increased federal and state funding for broadband. No other reason was close.

That said, some of the officials pointed to economics, as one executive said fiber was obviously better for the multi-dwelling units (MDUs) served by his company. Terrain can be a factor, including thick forests, which can make fiber the better option. One WISP executive told me that perception was positive as well, as many prospects believe that fiber is superior to other broadband technologies.

FWA competition 

During the event, I moderated a panel on fixed wireless competition with presenters Corey Hauer, the CEO of GigFire, a large WISP that also deploys fiber, plus Brandon Hardy, the owner of a start-up WISP in Texas, and Kyriakos Vergos, the CEO of equipment maker Codium Networks.

Hauer’s presentation laid out the pros and cons of deploying fiber versus fixed wireless. Most of GigFire’s coverage is fixed wireless, but GigFire is increasingly leaning into fiber deployments. He provided some details on the cost of deploying fiber, generally making the point that fiber deployments can be surprisingly affordable compared to fiber deployment costs in the past.

Hardy’s presentation was highly optimistic. He recently launched Cobalt Ridge, which operates in the vicinity of Wichita Falls, Texas. Hardy went into detail about the costs to deploy a WISP and the revenues to expect, but his conclusion was that it is not too late to deploy a WISP.

Incidentally, in early March, I spoke with Hardy to plan the session. After working out the details, he excused himself, saying that he "needed to go climb a tower."

WISP CEO: 'Fixed wireless meets the needs of 99% of households'

“Matt Larsen gave an impassioned defense of fixed wireless during the WISPAMERICA 2024 conference in Oklahoma City,” Corey Walker of Broadband Breakfast wrote on March 15. Larsen is the CEO of Vistabeam, a large and growing WISP that operates in parts of Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming.

Larsen pointed to statements from some that fiber should be laid to all households, but he disagreed. “Enough! If we look at real world, empirical data, we see that customers want fixed wireless,” he said. “My interpretation of that data is that fixed wireless meets the needs of 99% of households and consumers are choosing it because the monthly costs are lower than fiber and cable,” Larsen told Broadband Breakfast, referring to studies from Leichtman Research Group showing that fixed wireless providers recently have dominated broadband customer acquisition data.

"Over the past year, fixed wireless services have accounted for 101% of the approximately 3,625,000 net broadband additions,” Leichtman Research Group reported in November. The firm compared the adds of telcos, cable companies and fixed wireless providers. For the sake of this study, subscriber data from the fixed wireless operations of T-Mobile and Verizon were cited, as the quarterly add information of America’s WISPs is not known.

Fiber is a great invention, but is speed everything?

I love fiber and consider it to be the greatest telecom invention ever. During my time with Sprint LTD – the local telephone company side of Sprint – I chaired a working group that weighed the pros and cons of a broad fiber rollout to many of the nearly 5% of U.S. households served by Sprint LTD.

That said, I agree with Larsen. I could buy a car that travels 250 mph, but it is more speed than I need, as local and state laws here in Kansas would prevent me from using more than a fraction of that speed. The killer app for broadband is video streams and if a WISP can carry the video that a family needs, that is adequate.

Parks Associates recently reported that 66% of subscribers that get fixed wireless from T-Mobile or Verizon consider their prices to be fair or good. “This compares to 51% of fiber subscribers and 35% of cable subscribers,” as Telecompetitor reported in January.

J.D. Power also reported last October that customers satisfaction was higher for fixed wireless customers of T-Mobile and Verizon. Last year, Recon Analytics also presented data showing higher satisfaction from fixed wireless providers T-Mobile and Verizon.

Impact to WISPs from T-Mobile and Verizon?

I did ask a couple of WISP CEOs for their views on the impact to their subscriber base from the highly successful efforts of T-Mobile and Verizon. The leader of one well-known WISP told me that his churn was significantly below that of the postpaid mobile operations of national carriers.

That said, there is some impact to the “funnel” of potential WISP customers, as a customer who chooses T-Mobile or Verizon and has a positive experience may be less likely to choose a WISP for service. Officials from a rural Arkansas WISP told me that they were concerned about Verizon, but they said that T-Mobile coverage in their region of Arkansas is not strong enough to have much impact.

I have long argued that WISPs have a significant “home field advantage.” Most WISPs are rural and they have an opportunity to have a presence at local events like a high school football game or a county fair. Also, prospects could well know employees from a local WISP from playing on a softball team or attending the same church.

WISPs seem to have momentum and growth on their side and increasingly, they are deploying fiber. I see the increasing fiber as positive. I agree with Vistabeam's Larsen that no one should dictate to WISPs what technology they should deploy. The recent dominance of fixed wireless broadband shows that it is more than good enough.

Whatever works for WISPs and for WISP customers is the important thing. And to maintain the home field advantage, WISP employees should avoid brushback pitches when a customer comes to the plate.

Jeff Moore is Principal of Wave7 Research, a wireless research firm that covers U.S. postpaid, prepaid, and smartphone competition. Jeff has 25 years of telecom industry experience, including 13 years of competitive intelligence work for Sprint. Follow him on Twitter @wave7jeff.