CHICAGO — Kyle Ackerman is making a reality out of what many other
established broadband providers say is impossible: bringing high-speed
Internet to rural and under-served towns throughout Minnesota.
He joins a growing number of providers who have one goal in
mind: connecting people to the Internet using a wireless link, free from
dependence on the telephone and cable companies.
Ackerman, chief executive officer of Xtratyme Technologies Inc., the
second-largest wireless Internet service provider (WISP) in the nation,
took a fledgling operation and built a wireless network that covers much of
his state and with plans to cover the rest of it within a couple years.
He’s doing it using fixed wireless, the stepchild technology of the
broadband Internet world. Called the third pipe of high-speed, behind
digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable, the technology has gotten little
attention by mainstream media or industry analysts.
The attention it has gotten has all been bad.
Companies like Sprint
, Metricom and Winstar all launched
highly-ambitious schemes to bring fixed wireless awareness to the fore, and
all three have been unsuccessful. Metricom (owner of the Richochet
service) filed for
Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy protection and Sprint has halted
expansion of its service after numerous technical setbacks. It has
reportedly shut down service in Denver, one of its first markets.
It doesn’t paint a rosy picture for fixed wireless. But according to
Ackerman, these companies all had one thing in common: they started large
when they should have been thinking small. It’s a business model, he said,
only wireless ISP entrepreneurs have been savvy enough to realize.
Like fixed wireless, dial-up Internet services got their start in the early
1990s on a small scale, with POP servers few and far between. As the
demand for the World Wide Web grew, so did the numbers of servers. Such
growth is predicted with fixed wireless, as wireless access points grow
Ackerman has overlapped his access points to such an extent in southern
Minnesota that for more than 600 square miles, Xtratyme service can’t
properly be called ‘fixed’ wireless. Using a laptop and a wireless local
area network (WLAN) card, his customers can drive down any road in the
coverage area and still surf the Internet (though he recommends they don’t
actually driving to prove this).
Xtratyme is just one of many fixed wireless providers popping up throughout
the country to address the demand for broadband outside the big
city. Despite the demand — and Congressional support for any program that
bridges the “digital divide” between rural and urban connectivity — cable,
satellite and DSL services have stalled outside the most populated cities.
Both point out the prohibitive costs of laying expensive fiber and coax
miles and miles to an area that’s underserved. WISPs however, need only
put up a tower with a dish every 10-20 miles or so to cover thousands of
Speaking at the first annual WISP convention (WISPCON) in Chicago this
week, Doug Karl, founder of software development company Karlnet (most
known for the software that runs Apple’s AirPort and Lucent’s wireless gear)
was optimistic about an industry that has such grass-roots level support and
thinks more about the community than the bottom line.
“We’re a part of history now, building the infrastructure for the last mile
and last five miles of Internet connectivity,” Karl said. “The simple fact
is that DSL, ISDN and cable are not financially feasible options; wireless
is critical for our country’s continued prosperity.”
The show is the end-result of the demand in the fixed wireless community
for a venue that speaks to them specifically. Started almost on a lark two
months ago on an e-mail discussion list, ISP-Wireless (a property owned by
intnernet.com), the event took on a life of its own.
An employee at one of the WISPs, Prime Directive Quick Link out of North
Aurora, IL, decided to take the reins of the show, asking for suggestions
Mike Anderson, the show’s organizer, said he wasn’t expecting the response.
“We all complain that we don’t get what we need (at other ISP conventions),
so I sent out a request asking people what they thought the ultimate
conference would have,” he said. “I got thousands of responses back. This
show fits our needs and I couldn’t be happier with the results.”
The results are in line with what many analysts see as a surge in demand
for fixed wireless as other high-speed options falter.
The Strategis Group predicts fixed wireless will have an annual growth rate
of 20 percent over the coming years, while the Forrester Group reports the
industry will garner up to 10 percent of total broadband revenues in that time.