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The Origin and Need for Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) Barry Manz

Antenna Tower

One solution in providing Internet connectivity in rural areas is Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), which serve an estimated four million people. A WISP is a fixed wireless access (FWA) or broadband wireless access (BWA) “last mile” service, meaning it serves fixed locations rather than mobile devices, typically using a bidirectional point-to-multipoint approach. That is, a single location transmits to and receives from multiple locations.

To understand this arcane industry, a little history is necessary. In the late 1990s, “high-speed” Internet access was provided by DSL (if the customer was near enough to a central office switch) and to a lesser degree by cable. For everyone else it was dial-up or nothing, which was almost always the case in rural areas. To remedy this, some technically-savvy people decided to take the matter into their own hands using Wi-Fi to provide Internet access to their homes and sometimes those of their neighbors.

To achieve this, they found a high point in town or some other high structure where a T1 was available, on which they mounted a Wi-Fi transceiver and high-gain directional antenna pointed toward their homes. The output from the antenna pointed at this Wi-Fi “base station” was connected to a computer inside the home. This DIY approach delivered download speeds of perhaps 1.5Mbs.

As the good news spread, more people in the area wanted in, and the pioneers found they were providing a service to the community rather than simply convenience for themselves. And so the WISP industry began. LARIAT, a non-profit rural telecommunications cooperative founded in 1992 in Laramie, WY, is often cited as the first WISP in the US, “going live” in 2003. LARIAT originally used WaveLAN equipment made by NCR Corporation, which operated in the unlicensed 900MHz Industrial Scientific and Medical (ISM) band. WaveLAN was conceived by Lucent Technologies to take advantage of the new IEEE 802.11 standard, and could deliver downlink speeds of about 1.1Mbs over a distance of about 21m. Other products from Nortel, Cabletron, and Aironet offered similar performance.

LARIAT remains in operation today as LARIAT.NET, a “locally-owned, locally-operated, locally-managed, non-franchise operation” and still serves Laramie. The company offers a basic package including VoIP phone service for $30 a month for which subscribers get potential downlink speeds up to 54Mbs (actual speed may vary). The company says it can achieve much higher speeds that are offered in more expensive packages.

In the ensuing years since the industry emerged, WISPs have made dramatic advances in both their sophistication and their use of advanced technology. Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) capability, spectrally-efficient access methods, and advanced encoding streams are increasingly used by radio manufacturers that let WISPs serve more customers at higher and higher data rates. As a result, some systems claim speeds of 1Gbps. Transmission schemes range from meshed Wi-Fi networks (Ubiquiti Networks) to Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) and several proprietary protocols such as Motorola’s Canopy used by Cambium Networks.

Even though broadband solutions are most commonly used in dense populations, WISPs fill gaps in coverage in those areas as well. And as other solutions like mesh networks and hi-altitude balloon connectivity advance enough to become more widely used, WISPs will continue to have a place in providing connectivity in rural locations. For more information about WISPs, visit “WISPs Bring High-Speed Internet Access to the Hinterlands,” on Mouser’s RF Wireless site.



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Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.




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