Opinion: Stimulus Money, Telcos vs WISPs

There’s $4.7 billion allocated as part of the “Broadband Technology Opportunities Program” in the new stimulus plan, which was signed into law on February 17th, and it looks like the telcos will get most of it. Verizon alone could get $1.6 billion.

If the money goes to Verizon, I believe that it will go to projects that are already planned, or even to propping up the company’s dividend. That’s not what the government intends.

If the government wants to deliver new internet connections, it should send the money to companies that are operating in areas that have already been redlined by the telcos.

One person making the case is Brian Webster (of Cooperstown, N.Y.-based Brian Webster Consulting). In collaboration with the Wireless ISP Association (WISPA) and the WISP Directory, he has built a map (.png) showing the coverage area of WISPs who have responded to his request for data.

Webster and WISPA president Rick Harnish have been talking, he says, about the need for the WISPs to compete with the telcos. “They go to Congress and say they represent x households, and I’ve always felt we needed to do something like this, but I couldn’t get the data from people,” says Webster. 

After a recent pitch to the WISPA list and the ISP-Wireless list, Webster says he obtained sufficient data to build the map. He uses Google Maps, Census 2000 data, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS)—Webster uses a product from Manifold.

The map is a powerful argument in favor of the WISP industry receiving a portion of the broadband subsidy, and has already received a significant amount of attention. “I was slashdotted,” says Webster. “Brett Glass wrote an article linking to the map. Traffic went through the roof.”

As a result of the article, a lot of people have seen the map.

The article also links to a nice video showing that Verizon customer support doesn’t know the difference between a dollar and a penny. Of course, their error causes a customer to be billed 100 times more than he should have been, so there’s no incentive at Verizon to fix the error. But I digress.

Form 477WISPA has a vital notice on its Website warning WISPs that the Form 477 that they file with the FCC is changing greatly in scope. WISPs will now be expected to show their coverage area.

You wanted to know why Webster’s doing this work for free? “I like the WISP industry. It’s small guys like me trying to make a go of it. Serving the WISP industry is more of a passion than a moneymaker,” he says.

This is the guy who led the EarthLink Philadelphia project (they waited too long to hire wireless guys and thought they could run the project with IP engineers, he says).

He’s now set up to work from home, helping WISPs map their coverage area. So as part of the initiative, he gets to publicize the work he does. You can see it in his interactive Google map.

There are some issues. WISPs don’t want to disclose the location of every AP they own, so he’s anonymizing the data, but if you know the location of a WISP, you can type in the name of their city and see their coverage area.

For those who are concerned about disclosing the data, he’s drawing a rough circle within a zip code instead of mapping the actual coverage area.

But better data in produces better data out (the reverse of GIGO). He can map your WISP coverage area to Google and estimate your coverage area in number of households.

This has several benefits. First of all, plans to come up with a preliminary number: the number of households passed by wireless broadband in the U.S.

But the WISP can use this data to its own benefit. The WISP can send direct mail only to households in the coverage area. Cell phone companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this. Webster charges $180 per tower for the coverage map plus $600 for the list of addresses.

For the new Form 477, he’s offering to map each WISP’s customer data to Census Tracts according to the FCC specifications for a flat $100 fee. For screen shots of the FCC’s new form, see this .pdf file. It gets interesting around pages 53 and 54.

Alex Goldman is Managing Editor at ISP-Planet. Article courtesy of ISP-Planet.

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