Wireless in the Rockies

Ken Swinehart, founder and president of Amigo.net, has been in the business for some
time. His mountainside ISP, based in Alamosa, Colo. (pop. 8,000), had a rocky
start. He parted ways with Rocky Mountain Internet (RMI) in 1997, getting the
local business while RMI kept the backbone. The switchover, whose glitches are
described in this article did
not go well initially, although Swinehart appears to have had the last laugh as
RMI has gone through tough times.


RMI tried to get back into the provider business, but ended up changing its
name and selling its
customers
to EarthLink. It now focuses on managed services.

Swinehart, meanwhile, has continued to build a facilities-based network in a
part of Colorado that the ILEC refuses to serve without government subsidies. He
remembers sitting around a table with his co-workers, brainstorming a name in
1997. They came up with “Amigo Net” which seemed friendly (amigo means
“friend” in Spanish).

Today, the ISP has grown. With about 6,000 dialup subscribers and 700
wireless broadband subscribers, Amigo.net is bigger than many but smaller than the
national players. Swinehart says, “in some rural areas, we’re the biggest. We
sometimes get a call [for wireless broadband] where Qwest cannot serve a T-1.”

The company also provides webhosting, and offers DSL but finds that many
customers who initially request DSL prefer wireless when they come to understand
how Qwest delays the provisioning process. That makes wireless the key to
revenue growth.

Although Swinehart has tried equipment from Alvarion, Western Multiplex (now part of Proxim), Teletronics,
and others, he settled on Trango. “We found Trango at ISPCON
2001 in Las Vegas. We were one of their first customers, which meant at the time
that we got their beta equipment. I met the CEO and the VP, and I’ve got a good
relationship with them. I buy 100 end user units at a time.”

So far, he is installing around 70 users per month, but Swinehart hopes to be
installing 100 each month soon.

Climbing mountains, competing with Qwest
He
faces the problems that ISPs face, and on top of those, he has to deal with his
local environment. Like every ISP, he has a complaint about phone company
billing. “There’s so much turnover at the ILEC that there’s no consistency in
dispute resolution. We need to explain each time that the billing is wrong, and
even then it never gets fixed. Recently, we have started to get some problems
resolved, but we’ve been billed for services that were never in place, and also
for services that were cancelled up to 2 years ago. Then they overbill you on
the service you do have.”

Now that he’s deployed successfully, big companies are starting to notice.
“Qwest is coming in with DSL, and a local cable company called Resident bought
some cable systems from AT&T Comcast.”

Added to the cares of an ISP are the worries of a WISP operator. “We tried
2.4 GHz but settled on 5.8 GHz. We ditched 2.4 GHz completely, in part because
everyone has equal priority over the air link and if one customer is a business
and the other is a residence, you want to provide different levels of service.”

Some customers don’t believe there’s a difference between 2.4 GHz service and
5.8 GHz service. “If a prospective customer has already tried wireless, and it
was 802.11b 2.4 GHz service, and they had problems, it’s difficult to sell them
5.8 GHz broadband.”

Remote locations require built-in redundancy. “We put spares at locations
serving many people. If something happens, the radio can cut over. We also keep
spares on our shelves. Some ISPs don’t, but you simply cannot wait two weeks for
new equipment. In addition, we have 24 hour paging support for major customers.”

Providing wireless service across the state requires access to electrical
contractors in every town served. Swinehart says that good contractors have been
very helpful. Some have many crews, and can cope with surges in Internet demand.
In other cases, they have taught Amigo.net how to comply with electrical code in
unusual cases, such as those water tower installations.

Wireless POPs are expensive. Swinehart says he budgets $5,000 for a new tower
site. “The cabling alone can cost $1,000 for shielded outdoor cable.”

Some tower owners require specific contractors. “I had to hire one guy for
$100 per hour because it was written into the contract for that water tower that
he was they only guy allowed to work on the tower.”

On top of those worries, add the Rocky Mountains. “Many of our antennas are
on 12,000 foot peaks. From there, we shoot microwave [5.8 GHz] down into
valleys. If I have a water tower location in a town, I can probably reach
everyone from there.”

He then uses up to six antennas on each water tower, because each Trango
antenna covers 60 degrees (horizontal).

Wind adds problems. “Wind can cause static on bare copper used in power
lines. We have to put on power conditioners before the UPS.”

Finally, you need access to special equipment. “We can reach most sites with
regular snowmobiles, but it’s also good to have a friend with a SnoCat. I have
one site that got so much snow, I couldn’t reach it for three months.”

Of course, all of these environmental problems are barriers to competition,
who would have to learn, as Swinehart did, how to overcome them. Swinehart’s
years of local service give him an advantage in his home markets, where he now
has name recognition. He grew up in Colorado, and says high school friends have
been a great source of contacts.

But he worries about the political resources Qwest has that are denied small
business. “Major providers get preferential treatment. They wax the pockets of a
lot of the state representatives and even the governor. I cannot understand why
the politicians would stand by them, but Qwest does give the maximum allowed
contributions. Even local economic councils are biased towards Qwest.”

Taking action against a mountain of
troubles

Swinehart has taken action in the past. “I ran for state rep
in 2000 and was beaten by an incumbent financed by Qwest.” The defeat was
particularly surprising in a conservative state because Swinehart’s opponent
was, according to this article, someone “who should
qualify for an endangered-species listing because he’s about the only labor
Democrat left in Colorado.”

Nevertheless, Swinehart is moving out to face the competition. “We need to
learn more about marketing, and about competition in new markets. Here in rural
areas, everybody knows us.”

The name “amigo.net” is useful in the Southern portion of the state, which is
increasingly bilingual. “We advertise on Spanish language radio and newspapers
with a tradeout. We trade Internet for airtime. A few people have said bad
things about our name. I guess there’s prejudice everywhere, and it’s just a
small portion here in Colorado. I don’t want to repeat what they said.”

Colorado offers Amigo.net room for growth and much to fear, which makes the
Colorado market not that different from the rest of the US, except for needing
the SnoCat.

Swinehart started with many advantages. He has local connections. He worked
for the state electric company in a department working on microwave telephone
systems. With all those advantages, he remains a small- to mid-sized ISP. But if
he hits that target of 100 new broadband users per month, the future will be
very bright (though covered in snow).

Reprinted from ISP Planet.

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