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Mar 21, 2024
4 min

WISPs Are Facing Stormy Waters—But There’s Still a Clear Path to Success

Last month, wireless internet service providers (WISPs) had reason to cheer an FCC decision that potentially paves the way for WISPs to use a new spectrum band, 6GHz. By earmarking parts of this valuable band for shared use, the WISPs—who can lack the means to acquire exclusive spectrum licenses—have a potential route to further growth.

This is welcome news for a part of the broadband industry that faces a challenging future.

The estimated 2,000 WISPs across the United States have played an important role in extending broadband to underserved—mainly rural—areas in recent years. Many WISPs are small companies, rooted in the communities that they serve, that have built trusted relationships with their subscribers.

The rapid rise of WISPs around five years ago rested on deploying fixed-wireless access (FWA) technology. This enabled them to wirelessly connect premises to a central base station, eliminating the need for traditional wired connections using fiber-optic cables or DSL lines. This approach was well suited to serving regions where deploying traditional fixed infrastructure is difficult or economically unviable.

This meant WISPs often had little or no competition in the early days. But this has changed.

The Rising Competitive Threat

The number of FWA subscribers in the U.S. reached 8.6 million in 2023, up from just 1.6 million in 2019, and is forecast to hit 18 million by 2027. But the problem for WISPs is that much of this future growth is expected to go to much larger rivals. That’s because large national wireless carriers and cable providers are also taking advantage of the emerging FWA opportunity and are encroaching on markets where many WISPs are present.

Competition is also coming from fiber providers. While several WISPs have been beneficiaries of federal funding programs aimed at closing the digital divide, most of this public funding has gone to fiber providers. Private funding has also tended to favor fiber-based infrastructure, viewing it as a more viable investment opportunity. The upshot is further competition in markets where WISPs may have once been the sole provider. Electric cooperatives, for example—with very deep roots in their local markets—are taking advantage of federal funding to build out fiber across their electric grid infrastructure.

Moving Towards a Hybrid Approach

Faced with these competitive headwinds, WISPs are reevaluating their strategies. For many, this means rolling out fiber themselves. This is partly to get a slice of the federal funding that is favoring fiber over FWA, but also to take advantage of fiber’s faster speeds and reliability. Some will move to a hybrid model, using fiber in the backhaul or last mile, while many are likely to become “fiber-first” in more densely populated markets.

Advocates of the traditional WISP model maintain that FWA technology still has a role to play in meeting the government’s goal of extending high-speed broadband to all corners of the country. The WISP Association (WISPA), for example, argues that the Biden Administration’s “Internet for All” initiative will only succeed if it considers all available technologies.

The Way Ahead

The era of minimal competition for the WISPs may have passed, but they are not giving up anytime soon. There remain pockets of the country where FWA is the only viable broadband technology—and it remains the most cost-effective way to build, deploy, and maintain a network.

More importantly, WISPs retain the advantage of being local companies, staffed by people from the communities that they serve. Key to their future success will be the ability to deliver a broadband experience that continues to build loyalty among subscribers—and keeps the WISPs one step ahead of the competition.

To learn more about how Wireless Internet Service Providers can build subscriber trust and loyalty through exceptional Wi-Fi experiences, download our eBook “The Way Forward for WISPs: Strategies for Winning in the Wi-Fi Market”.

Senior Marketing Manager, Segment Marketing

Susan Higgins is the senior marketing manager, segment marketing at Calix. Susan supports the wireless ISP (WISP) segment and brings over 25 years of experience in telecommunications, focusing on communications, market research, strategy, and sales enablement. Before Calix, Susan worked for Frontier Communications, Verizon Wholesale, and Sprint. Susan holds a B.A. in mathematics and psychology, an MBA in B2B marketing, a professional diploma in customer experience, and is a certified digital marketing professional (AMA+DMI).

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