Best Practices for the WISP Business

At their ISP session, Standards of WISP Excellence: SOPs for the WISP Industry, Matt Larsen of Vistabeam and John Scrivner of Mt. Vernon.Net (both board members of WISPA) offered wireless ISPs a wide range of suggestions on how to improve the quality and professionalism of their offerings.

Among the many keys to WISP success discussed at the session were ensuring a professional installation, dealing with interference (both external and self-inflicted), coordination of spectrum, and ensuring employee safety.

Professional Installation

A professional installation on the access point side, Scrivner said, needs to include key components like grounding, surge suppression, lightning arrestors, weatherproofing, remote power control, and complete and correct tower agreements.

If something isn’t grounded right, Larsen said, your radios will exhibit strange behavior. “I had a tower where any time there was a lightning storm within ten miles, we had an access point that would lock up and we would have to power cycle it,” he said. “We went to install some more equipment on this tower and found out that the only ground for this huge, self-supporting 110-foot tower was a little tiny copper wire that was just barely attached to a painted metal surface on the outside of a building.” Larsen and his electrician drove three ground rods at the bottom of the tower, and they’ve never had any electrical-related equipment faults there since then.

The nice thing about grounding, Scrivner noted, is that you can check it visually. “If you don’t see three ground rods around the base of that tower and you don’t see a bond wire from those three grounds over to your electrical power service ground…then you can have an imbalance of power if there’s a lightning hit,” he said.

The point is that grounding is about avoiding imbalances of power between the equipment at the top of the tower and the equipment at the base. “It’s not that grounding stops tens of thousands of volts from hitting your equipment,” Scrivner said. “It’s that it attempts to keep them all at the same potential voltage all the time, so that they rise up in voltage together and come down together. There’s much less chance of them being fried if you do that.”

Weatherproofing is equally important—Larsen said he recently went to check out a site that kept losing signal, and found that “somebody ran out of weatherproofing when they were putting the connector on one of the dishes.” The lesson is simple: “Don’t skimp on your weatherproofing,” he said. “It’ll work for a while, but eventually there is going to be a problem with it.”

UPS and remote power control, Larsen said, are also crucial. “You can buy small remote power control units for as little as $100 to $150, and that will enable you to cycle power,” he said. “85, 90 or maybe an even higher percentage of any issues I’ve had with wireless equipment or somebody going out of service were solved by just power cycling the gear.”

Finally, Scrivner added that it’s also important to check your line voltage. “Line voltage can and does fluctuate, especially on remote sites where someone’s not using it all the time,” he said. “It’s not like they see the lights go up and down inside the base of the tower, because there’s no one there to see that—but it can cause your access point to run flaky.”

Customer Premises

Customer premises equipment (CPE), Larsen said, has many of the same requirements as the access point, including surge suppression and grounding—as well as a clean and neat installation, subscriber agreements, acceptable use policy, and advice on anti-virus, anti-spyware and routing.

“It does take extra time during the installation to sit down and look through the customer’s PC and make sure that they actually have some form of up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware loaded on that computer, or sell them that and install it,” Scrivner said. “But if you don’t do it, you’re either going to do it later, or they’re going to be complaining forever about the problems that they have with their connection.”

Similarly, Scrivner highly recommended installing a router or a routing CPE at the customer location. “You want to control that router, and you want to explain to the customer why,” he said. “You want to tell them, ‘We need to be able to log into it and help you with it if you have problems with your router down the road.'”

Avoiding Interference

Beyond the physical aspects of the installation, Larsen said interference mitigation is key. “Believe it or not, the source of most interference in a lot of cases is yourself, if you don’t have your network planned out,” he said.

So it’s crucial to map out your network. “Use software like RadioMobile [ed note: it’s freeware] to lay out what your network looks like and what channels you’re running on in different areas,” Larsen said. “It’ll help you pinpoint any potential self-interference.”

And keep an ongoing plan for your network as a whole. “I’ve seen this happen all the time—somebody changes a channel, and it’s like musical chairs: everybody changes their channels until they get back where they started, or back to a different situation,” Larsen said. “Conditions change, so you’ve got to have a plan to go out and check that stuff, track it, and make sure you know what’s going on in your environment.”

To help in that effort, Scrivner had a very low-tech suggestion: keep a simple spiral-bound notebook at the base of each tower. “Every time there’s a change made, write it down—even if you’re the only one that looks at that book,” he said. “Because if things are running well, you may not be back at that tower for a very long time. And if you have notes in there of the noise level, the signal level, and the channel that you set it on, if you have all that information logged, that book is going to save your butt someday.”

Coordinating Spectrum

Coordinating and communicating with others is key in avoiding interference. If you discover noise or interference from schools, businesses, other WISPs, government, cell carriers, or others, start by contacting them. “If you open a rapport with these people and you prove to them that you’re going to give them a level of trust, they’ll usually reciprocate,” Scrivner said.

In some cities, local channel plan databases like WBANC provide online methods for coordinating spectrum between users. “They’ve tried to use an orderly mapping system to look at polarities and frequencies and headings and antenna patterns and so on to coordinate the use of those frequencies and make efficient use of the spectrum,” Scrivner said.

There are also other, even simpler ways to ensure that nearby users know who you are. One audience member said he includes his phone number as part of his SSID, and Larsen said he does the same with his web address. “If somebody sees it, they know who to call to get service,” he said.

Design and Safety

Key factors in ensuring a well-designed IP network, Larsen said, include building your network with the ability to scale, as well as routing and bandwidth shaping. “Bandwidth shaping is absolutely critical,” he said. “On my network, on 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi-based gear, we offer 384 Kbps and 640 Kbps, and anybody that wants speeds faster than that, we move them to a different system.”

Scrivner added that it’s crucial to build a network carefully, with an eye to the future. “Your network can and does grow organically if you’re doing it right,” he said. “If you’re just trying to design and build for capacity to the maximum and build for ten years’ worth of capacity, you will go broke in this business. You have to build as you need, with the upgrade path in mind to what you can do to grow it later.”

Finally, Scrivner pointed out the most important factor to keep in mind. “It doesn’t do any good to be in this business if you’re dead,” he said. “So get safe—if you’re not safe, get safe. If you’re climbing, you need to be certified, you need to be trained, and you need to have someone else with you who is trained and climbing and knows how to save you in case you get hurt on the tower.”

That also includes organizing regular safety meetings as mandated by OSHA. “You and your staff should be meeting once a week and making a safety log book…inspecting the tools, replacing tools, going through the belts looking for nicks on the belts, replacing items that are broken, talking about safety,” Scrivner said. “If you’re not doing a weekly meeting, start doing it—it takes about ten minutes a week.”

In closing, Larsen and Scrivner urged participants to get involved in mailing lists such as ISP-Wireless, attend trade shows such as ISPCON, and join trade associations like WISPA, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. “You’re not alone,” Larsen said. “There are other people out there on the same 12-step program to WISP recovery!”

Article courtesy of ISP-Planet.

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