Industries > Wireless Internet Service Provider Guide
Wireless Internet Service Providers or "WISPs" play a important role in providing internet connectivity, especially in rural areas with little or no coverage options. Running a WISP operation is a tough job - one that includes the daily challenges of keeping up with:
- Network issues
- Staff meetings
- Tower visits
- Equipment programming
- Firmware upgrades
The good news is that there are keys to making the journey to becoming a successful WISP easier, and we’ve assembled them here on this page and in a downloadable PDF format as a free WISP Essentials Guide!
This guide is full of nuggets of wisdom from some of the some of the most successful WISPs in the industry. These have been organized into 10 keys for success. We hope that this guide proves to be helpful to you and your WISP!
WISP TEAM MEMBERS - BE SURE TO SHARE THIS WITH YOUR WISP CEO OR PRESIDENT!
Key #1 - Set Up Your Business Up for Success
See Your WISP as a Business
Chris, a WISP CEO from Ohio, offers that the first part of setting a WISP business up for success is viewing it primarily as a business, not a WISP. He also suggests that if WISPs do not have experience in business building, they should get outside help in order to have a solid business foundation. This may include:
For each of the areas above, will you hire an outside firm on hire internal staff? For the staff that you do hire, what training will they require for relevant software, business best practices, and ongoing professional development? Additionally, don’t rule out hiring a wireless or technical consultant when your team is expected to deploy and support a new technology.
If you’re a whiz at wireless but don’t know much about business, you may wind up without much of a business. This is true for WISPs that have been in the industry for years, and for those just starting out. Whether it’s correcting the course you’ve been on, or are starting fresh, don’t gloss over what you don’t know and simply hope for the best. Do it right.
Take Control of Your Business
Pete, a President of a California WISP, explains that it’s critical early on to develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), noting that having processes early on will prevent things from getting out of control later. These SOPs may cover the areas mentioned above or other areas you identify as business critical. It may take a little time, but Pete advises that WISPs create a model that works and stick with it. Sustainable, scalable businesses are those that operate smoothly and with a plan.
Plan for Long Term Success
Think long term. Investing in equipment, software, and employees is all about perspective and calculated risk. Although this can be scary, playing out the numbers over the long haul should prove reassuring, similarly to investing wisely in the stock market. Remember that you get out what you put in, so resist the temptation to skimp and cut corners.
Plan in Phases
Steve, a WISP President from Kentucky, strongly believes in offering data only as the only service until things are running smoothly, waiting to add email and other services. Whether or not it’s too late for you to heed that advice, you need to plan in phases. Will you expand your offerings from only data to also include email, voice or other related services? How long before you need to add licensed spectrum? Upgrade paths are essential, so what’s your timetable for improving your network? What about increasing customer speeds? How many towers do you anticipate needing in five years, and what will your footprint look like? What will your staff and payroll look like? You shouldn’t expect your network to be perfect right away, but you do need to plan ahead for new offerings, upgrades, and expansion.
"You should never stop learning. Form good habits now, and remember that you are building for the long term."
Phone a Friend
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What resources do you have at your disposal? Think through your plans, do your research and bounce your ideas off of trusted business resources, industry partners, and your fellow WISPs. Get involved in forums and attend trade shows to get additional insights. You should never stop learning. Form good habits now, and remember that you are building for the long term. Make it count!
Key #2 - Build Your Network Wisely
Develop Long Term Vision
Building your WISP requires long term vision. Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 years? 10 Years? You should calculate and weigh each decision relative to those goals. Having that vision now will help you to adopt a realistic perspective on the initial investments and others required over time.
Pete, President of a WISP in California, mentioned how his business partner freaked when, in 2003, he purchased an 18 GHz licensed link and 4 ft. dish (capable of delivering a whopping 45 mbps!), with a price tag of around $30,000. He laughs about it now nearly 15 years later, not only because his partner’s reaction is still amuses him, but also because this big investment at the time has since paid off.
Connect Investment to Customer Satisfaction
Having a network capable of winning and keeping your customers will require an investment. Embracing that principle will help avoid sticker shock. It’s no surprise that Pete has also made the investment to upgrade his switching gear and core routers. He believes that all network investments are to improve the customer experience. His goal is “Five 9s” because he understands that solid infrastructure means happy customer. Customer satisfaction translates to long term success.
Steven, President of a Kentucky WISP, emphasized spending the time and money on active filtering devices and good channel management. Also, he insisted that surge protectors are a must. Eric, Owner of a Tennessee WISP, recommended that WISPs spend more money earlier on to avoid needing to redo things down the road, not only with radios but also with racks. Eric also advised buying blocks of IP addresses at the outset.
Pace Your Expansion
Don’t grow your network too fast. Justin, Director of Network Operations for a Nebraska WISP, noted the importance of investing strategically based on subscriber concentration. In addition to saturating your existing coverage area more thoroughly, consider how increasing capacity and offering better service can help increase your ROI per subscriber. Steven (mentioned above) also added that smaller jumper towers may be a part of the equation, helping you reach more subscribers in your current coverage area.
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Understand Your Changing Environment
Chris, CEO of an Ohio WISP, advised that when planning out a network initial or expanding into a new coverage area, it’s important for WISPs not only to know their terrain, but to also understand the seasonal challenges that occur. He also noted that signals achievable when installing in November will change once the leaves come back in the Spring, and WISPs will need a buffer. Consider also the variances in rain fade if your area has particularly wet seasons. You’ll never know if WISP “neighbors” will encroach on you and cause new interference. You have to adjust as needed, but you can be prepared and know your environment. Chris believes WISPs should focus their efforts on coverage areas that are more serviceable, and set themselves up for success.
Set Service Standards and Stick to Them
Taking all the natural and manmade factors into account, you have a good idea of what quality of service you can realistically offer on your existing infrastructure. Joe, Wireless Network Manager from a Minnesota WISP, stated that WISPs should set strict guidelines for the signals they can deliver, and learn to say no if they can’t achieve them. As much as WISPs want to have every subscriber possible, they shouldn’t compromise on their minimum signal requirement. WISPs will thank themselves in the future for setting their limits and sticking to them.
Key #3 - Protect Your Network
Listen to Your Network
Justin, Director of Network Operations for a Nebraska WISP, believes that the first step in protecting a network is listening to it carefully and consistently. Understanding what issues are happening and what is working as anticipated is key. WISPs should have a daily ritual of evaluating how their network is operating through the signals it is sending. By proactively monitoring, troubleshooting, and watching for patterns, WISPs can learn how to optimize performance from the network itself.
Pay if Forward
Joe, Wireless Network Manager from a Minnesota WISP, noted the importance of being a good neighbor to other WISPs. He mentioned that WISPs wouldn’t appreciate getting bombarded with interference from neighboring networks, so they shouldn’t put up omnis everywhere and just wing it. WISPs should do their due diligence by building wisely and considerately, so they can expect the same in return. They should build the industry better by being a good neighbor.
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Filter Out Malicious Attacks
Pete, President of a California WISP, discussed the importance of having an effective plan for actively filtering out malicious network traffic and threats. He recalled how his company implemented a threat management device to help defend against the 4-5 Denial- of-Service (DDoS) cyber attacks they are hit with daily, stemming in part from customers involved with online gaming. Pete stated that doing so will prevent service disruptions that many WISPs aren’t even aware are happening. WISPs can get caught off guard by not realizing the impact this is having on their network, their reputation, and their customer’s satisfaction.
Protecting Against the Elements
Chris, CEO of an Ohio WISP, said that some of the best advice he could offer WISPs is to properly configure their networks to be protected from the elements. Specifically, he mentioned weather-sealing and surge-protecting against lightning strikes. Similarly, Joe (mentioned above) noted lots of service calls from water in cables, citing how water seeped into his CAT 5 cables and then into POE injectors. There are no shortage of powerful storms that wreak havoc across the country, so expecting your network to be unaffected is naive. Take the proper steps ahead of time to protect your network, so that you are not left wishing you had in the wake of the next storm.
Key #4 - Get Your Finances in Order
A Tale of Two WISPs
Once upon a time were two WISPs. Both had big ideas and were full of excitement about the success their businesses would have. Both companies evaluated their market, made their plans, and started doing business. After a few years, both businesses had done alright, but in order to get to the next level of success, each needed a new plan. One WISP took a look at their budget and revenue and decided to stay the course. They couldn’t afford to upgrade and expand.
The other WISP decided to get more aggressive and come up with a plan to beat their competition to the punch, offering better plans and expanding their reach. They too, couldn’t achieve this on their own capital, so they decided to look into responsible ways to get the funding they needed, and continue to operate in the black. They realized that applying for government funds and financing through a reputable partner were both viable options.
The second WISP went on to acquire the needed capital through government funding and partner financing. They struck while the iron was hot, and dominated their competition. The other WISP eventually closed its doors, since their subscriber base had shrunk and they saw no path to competing successfully.
More than Fiction
The above story is fictional...but is it really? Chris, CEO of an Ohio WISP, shared a “pivotal” moment in 2010 when his company applied for and received a Rural Utilities Service (RUS) grant for a substantial amount. Additionally, they received financing from a trusted partner when they really needed it. Chris believes that WISPs need to have their financing in place ahead of time, with access to the necessary capital. When the iron is hot, WISPs should be ready to strike.
"Investing in your business is all about perspective and calculated risk… Remember that you get out what you put in."
Finances Are a Part of Your Success
You may recall that “Setting Up Your Business for Success” was the first key of this guide. Under the subheading of “Plan for Long Term Success,” we should remember the following:
“Investing in your business is all about perspective and calculated risk…Remember that you get out what you put in.”
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Key #5 - Create Customer Loyalty
Great Service Produces Customer Loyalty
We all love great customer service. It’s human nature. We know from our personal experience that it influences whom we choose to do business with. Likewise, you can expect your customers to have more loyalty when provided with great customer service.
Great Service Can Save Your Hide
Eric, Owner of a Tennessee WISP, is convinced that customer service is a key to a WISP’s success. He reported that his company’s level of customer service resulted in customer loyalty even when other better offerings like fiber were available. In their situation case, higher value was placed on a premium customer service experience than on a premium product.
Great Customer Service Requires Investment
Pete, President of a California WISP, explained that his company has three staff members dedicated to customer retention. He believes that all network investments and improvements are to enhance the customer experience. You may not be able to dedicate three of your staff to customer service, but you should give this area the priority it deserves.
Justin, Director of Network Operations for a Nebraska WISP, expressed a similar sentiment. He is working to rebuild his network to better saturate their current coverage network while also offering faster service. Justin recommended taking the time to research instead of just running ahead. He believes in planning for the long term to avoid headaches with certain frequencies and other limitations - not just focusing on the short term solution.
Set the Customer Service Bar According to Your Own Expectations
As a customer, you know what great customer service is. It’s having your requests and concerns heard and considered fairly. It’s having your complaints understood and your issues resolved in a timely manner. Offering a good product for a good price will win you the customer initially, but great customer service just might seal the deal on their permanent customer loyalty!
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Engage in Communication Proactively through Social Media
Good communication is a necessity, and you should utilize the key channels of communication that are convenient for and relevant to your customers. Communication through phone, email, and social media supplement should supplement any communication you do through traditional printed mailings. Social media specifically is a great way to engage customers with:
Engaged customers feel connected, and that is what you are after. The more communication the better!
Owning Your Mistakes Improves Customer Loyalty
Creating customer loyalty is also owning your mistakes when you make them. Promptly apologize and correct the situation for a positive outcome. A track record of providing great customer service can give your customers confidence that mistakes will not be repeated. Also, it makes them more tolerant of the occasional issue here and there.
Key #6 - Know Your Market: Part 1 - Grow with Demand
Grow Where You Are
Growth can come in the form of new customers as well as new offerings to existing customers. When it comes to adding new customers, be aware of opportunities to maximize your reach in your current coverage area and look for ways to expand to new areas.
Increasing saturation makes sense for several reasons:
- Speed and ease of adding new subscribers
- Lower immediate cost for customer acquisition
- ROI improvement for existing network
- Gain of market share in an area you’re invested in
“Jump” on Demand Opportunities
Utilizing smaller, less expensive jumper towers can be an effective strategy for reaching more subscribers in your current coverage area. Steven, President of a Kentucky WISP, described how he has built his network over the years to include several main towers operating in 11 GHz. He supplemented those main towers by adding jumper towers according to customer demand. He also explained how he would upgrade the backbone on his towers over time as needs increase. Listening and responding to customer needs in phases has proven to be a part of their success.
Expand Your Offerings
Raising your revenue per customer and generating new net income can be achieved by expanding your current offerings. You can offer new levels of service to existing customers, expand into new coverage areas, and provide new services such as:
- Web design and hosting
- Computer services
- Video surveillance
- VoIP phone systems
- and many more
Factoring the following into your decision will help you vet out what possibilities are a good fit for your company:
- Market demand - How many potential subscribers can you identify? What service options already exist for them?
- Profitability - Do the numbers work for offering a better service for a higher price, or a comparable or better service option at a lower price?
- Difficulty and cost of delivery - Will the equipment, staffing, licensing, and other costs required be worth the investment and effort?
- Current staff’s capabilities of supporting the new offering - What will it take to properly get your team up to speed and keep them properly trained?
- Access to advice from peers or industry partners experienced with this offering - Do you have WISP colleagues that gone down this road already? Do you vendor partners have resources and/ or expertise in this area that you can utilize? How much will this cost?
Expand Into New Coverage Areas
As you build your business and become known in your local area, you will get calls for customers wanting your service to expand to their area. When this happens, make sure to investigate if there are more potential subscribers in the same area. These future customers, combined with your own plans for growth, present you with a variety of options to consider. You can offer them the same service as your current customers, experiment with new premium offerings, or a new supplement offerings like those previously mentioned (video surveillance, VoIP, IPTV, etc.)
Look and Leap into Expansion
When considering expansion your coverage area or adding new offerings, take some time to research, analyze, and get advice, but don’t allow this to hinder progress, causing opportunities to be missed. Travis, WISP President from Missouri, warned about avoiding the “paralysis of analysis” by overthinking, and emphasized the importance of deciding and taking action. There will always be some risk, so make the most educated decisions you can in a reasonable amount of time and then get to work. You’ll never know unless you try!
"Investing in your business is all about perspective and calculated risk… Remember that you get out what you put in."
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Key #7 - Know Your Market: Part 2 - Make the Right Offerings
Understand What is Good Enough
It’s important to understand what’s a good deal for you and your subscribers. Let’s take the example of expanding into a new coverage area. Travis, WISP President from Missouri, shared what he takes into account:
- Who is the target market?
- Who is the competition, and what are they offering?
- What would better service look like relative to the competition?
Not rocket science, right? However, don’t miss one important aspect: Providing a better service does NOT mean offering the best possible speeds. You just need to offer the best service relative to the market, and keep a step ahead of your competition. From the subscriber’s viewpoint, your offerings are relative to your competitor’s offerings. At the end of the day, people just want reliable service, and 5 mbps might be all they need for now.
Eric, Owner of a Tennessee WISP, recognized that the ideal situation is finding new service areas where there is no competition, and people are desperate for service. He suggested using online resources like government web sites to pinpoint where service is being offered. The next best thing would be finding a new service area with enough demand for better service, where you can easily beat the competition. Keep an eye out for both scenarios.
Define Premium Service
Travis cited offering business class service as one of the best decisions his company has made. They also have a solid set of residential customers on premium residential service plans. As with standard offerings, recognize that business class connectivity and dedicated residential services are also relative to the market.
The premium service offered by Travis’ company, although more expensive than standard service, was more reasonable relative to the high cost of a competitor’s satellite service. As a result, they were able to steal one of their premium residential customers from a satellite service provider that was taking advantage of the lack of competition and was price gouging. Travis’ company was able to demand a premium price for premium service, but they also put their offering in a stronger position relative to the inflated price of their competition. This shows the savvy of knowing a fair market premium price.
Be Realistic and Say No
It’s best in the long run to have strict guidelines for the signal you can deliver. Earlier in this guide, we shared words of wisdom from Joe, Wireless Network Manager from a Minnesota WISP:
“WISPs should set strict guidelines for the signals they can deliver, and learn to say no if they can’t achieve them.”
Prepare yourself for calls from outlying potential customers, or for those occasional situation where it’s just not going to work. Know that you are doing the right thing and preventing future disappointment on both ends.
"WISPs should set strict guidelines for the signals they can deliver, and learn to say no if they can’t achieve them."
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Don’t Underprice Yourself!
Another important aspect of saying no is not giving into the temptation of underpricing yourself in an effort to gain revenue now. Hold your ground and keep the big picture in mind. Don’t drop below the prices that you know you need to get from your customers to be solvent in the future. And remember to factor in the relative pricing strategy mentioned above. Always offer premium packages at a premium price.
Play to Your Strengths
Steven, President of a Kentucky WISP, realized how his team is great at moving quickly to add a tower or access point in response to customer demand. His staff can mobilize quickly and ensure that these new opportunities are not missed. Understand what your company’s strengths are, and when an opportunity arises that fits well into your staff’s capabilities, make sure to own them.
Key #8 - Find More Frequency
Consider the Licensed Alternative
Unlicensed frequencies like 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz are heavily used and can often be congested. Utilizing the variety of licensed frequencies available for WISPs can create “interference-free” transmission, or reduce interference significantly. Using these licensed frequencies, however, often requires a greater upfront investment and takes more time to satisfy the licensing requirements of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Is it worth the time, money, and effort to use licensed frequencies?
Use Licensed Spectrum Effectively
Pete, President of a California WISP, believes that using licensed frequencies is worth the time, money, and effort. He explained how one of their biggest problems is running out of spectrum. As a result, his company is utilizing licensed spectrum as a big part of their business plan moving forward. Pete stated that one of the best pieces of advice he could offer to other WISPs is to convert all their links to licensed. Justin, Director of Network Operations for a Nebraska WISP, echoed a similar sentiment. He recommended using licensed links to avoid the headaches of unlicensed spectrum as well as fiber.
Many of the towers used by Pete’s company are registered for Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, and they are currently testing this “lightly-licensed” 3.65 LTE frequency in an effort to reach 130 potential customers that they have identified between two of their towers. These potential customers represent not only many thousands in monthly recurring revenue, but also the ability to reach many more potential customers that are currently unreachable and difficult nLOS situations.
Steven, President of a Kentucky WISP, specified that his company was operating their three main towers in the licensed 11 GHz band. Part of their strategy was to upgrade their backbone on towers as needs increased. Their organic approach allowed them to use the right equipment on the right frequencies at the right time.
Know Licensed Limitations
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Running out of frequency can also occur in licensed. Pete, mentioned above, explained that his company is focused on the new 3.65 GHz spectrum initiative, and cited how they could run out of channels even in licensed. They use the 6 GHz, 11 GHz, and 18 GHz licensed bands, however, there are “quiet zone” limitations in 18 GHz. Licensed frequencies have significant advantages, but doing research and seeking advice from a trusted industry partner (see Licensed PTP Configure & Quote Form) or peer who has experience working in licensed spectrum will help prevent surprises.
Key #9 - Tools of the Trade
Know Your Options
In addition to the hardware essentials like radios, antennas, and routers, there are a wide variety of software tools and resources for successful WISP operations. Here are some examples of the types of tools and resources available to you:
- Network Management - Automates or streamlines areas such as provisioning, bandwidth management, network monitoring, trouble tickets, and service disconnect.
- Network Design & Mapping - Crucial for understanding your terrain and successful deployment.
- Tower Planning - Useful for building your timeline and budget for coverage area saturation and expansion.
- Business Organization - Simplifies inventory management, revenue, payroll, etc.
- Internal Communications - Organizes how you will communicate with staff and how they will communicate within their teams.
- Customer Relationship Management (CRM) - Manages your customer database and your communications with them.
- Billing - Provides mechanisms for accounts receivable and account payable, and stores all financials records for reporting, tax filing, and auditing.
- Reporting - Enables visualization of trends across all departments of your business and identifies areas of success and those needing improvement.
- Sales - Essential tools for new customer acquisition, account management, pipeline building and forecasting.
- Marketing - Integrates and automates the promotional activities of your web site, email, social media, and online advertising, as well as traditional methods like mail and events.
*The Azotel solution in particular is one that every WISP should consider utilizing.
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - Regulations, Applications, Forms
- Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) - Events, Industry Info, Topical Email Lists, FCC Lobbying
- Wireless Without Limits Conference Cruise (WWL) - One-of-a-kind event bringing WISPs and other wireless professionals together.
- Value Added Resellers (VARs) / Distribution Partners - Product Sourcing, Product Information, Network Design, Financing, Technical Services, Training, Events
- Software Developers - Software Specs, User Groups, Forums
- Service / Training Providers - Details of Offerings, Schedules
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Make It Happen
There are plenty of options available to address just about every concern you can think of. Do your research and ask questions of your industry connections to figure out what the best software tools are for your specific business. Using the right software tools, especially those capable of automation, will make your staff perform as if you were a larger team. Utilizing the available resources will inform you and your team in all the business decisions you will make.
Key #10 - Choose the Right Partner
Expect Added Value
You don’t need to do this alone! There is invaluable help available if you take the time to reach out. As noted in the previous key, a good VAR or distribution partner can offer a lot to your WISP, including:
Beyond what your partner offers, is how they provide it. This gets into the quality of customer service. After all, isn’t that what “Value Added” means?
Make Your Life Easier
You should strive to find a partner with whom you feel a strong relationship. Hopefully, when you find the right one, you’ll find yourself echoing statements similar to the ones listed below:
"My partner rep gets me in touch the same day with the manufacturer and joins the call to fix problems. He calls to check in, not just to sell. That’s the difference. Not many other companies do that. We had struggles with a product that we purchased from another VAR, but our partner rep got us connected with the manufacturer to fix it."
Justin, Director of Network Operations for a Nebraska WISP
"Customer service and fixing wrong orders are what our partner does well. We switched from another distributor because quotes and shipments weren’t very good."
Joe, Wireless Network Manager from a Minnesota WISP
"My partner rep and I share cell numbers. He is very responsive. We have a good relationship. That makes it easy to do business."
Chris, CEO of an Ohio WISP
"My partner rep answers my questions and provides quick turnaround. He lets me know when items we use are getting low in stock. His teammate has also helped us with understanding 11 GHz licensing."
Eric, Owner of a Tennessee WISP
"Items are typically in stock. We have a better price point. It’s nice to call my partner rep and get the scoop on certain products. He keeps his ear to the ground."
Steven, President of a Kentucky WISP
"I have a very good working relationship with our partner. My rep has been thorough in asking what current and future needs are. They always seem to have inventory, and they can forecast based off our run rates. They meet and exceed our expectations. Our rep is always calling, asking about our needs and wants. I have no complaints compared to what I was used to with the other vendors. They are hands down one of the best vendor providers they’ve ever had."
Pete, President of a California WISP
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