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A New Urban Broadband Wisp Takes off in Boston

Executive Summary

Brough Turner's netBlazr - a Boston-based - broadband Internet service provider represents an important development of new WISP business models.  By means of the use of directional antennas in the five and 24 GHz unlicensed bands, he has shown that it is possible to establish and deliver a 15 Mbps symmetrical service at a price point of 39.95 per month in Boston Massachusetts.

His service depends on the existence of high-rise buildings that offer competitive fiber connections — that is to say buildings where at least two carriers who are not among the incumbents own fiber over which they will sell services.  These conditions enable netBlazr to purchase transit bandwidth quite inexpensively.  He says “we should be at $3/sub/month this year. At scale we should be at or below $1/sub/month.”

netBlazr began on the 61st floor of the John Hancock Tower where, by shooting through glass with minimal signal attenuation, it was able to place both its equipment rack and mount a total of 12 radios pointed in all directions for a fee of $500 per month.  In doing so it avoided what would have been much more expensive placement on the building's roof and the hazards of having the radios directly exposed to outside weather.  The upstream connection comes by means of a fiber patch cable from the competitive fiber provider, in this case  Lightower, to netBlazr’s equipment rack.  

In the case of netBlazr, Boston's urban geography has enabled the availability of extremely cost-effective Internet transit originally from only the Hancock Tower and, after two years of operation, from three additional “head ends" where inexpensively mounted radios using highly directional antennas can be mesh networked to each other without performance degrading interference.  Because of the directionality involved, customer premises equipment can be placed in a window as well as on a rooftop.  Originally the business model assumption was sales to enterprises.  However, early experience showed that such sales were time-consuming and consequently expensive.

It soon became apparent that the most eager market was that of Boston's tens of thousands of apartment dwellers where radios could be placed on the rooftop of an apartment building and connected directly to the building’s telecom closet wiring. Given the ability to deliver a reliable symmetrical 15 Mbps per second connection — something that the asymmetric architecture of the incumbents could not do, and the ability, as a result, to deliver reliable video streaming, the absence of telephone and television from the service was not a drawback for the young urban professionals that formed the majority of netBlazr’s market.

The availability of Ubiquity airFiber radios, capable of delivering 650 Mb per second up and down, enabled the creation of secondary nodes connected to the head end. These nodes would each make it possible to connect several surrounding buildings and deliver a high-bandwidth stream from the node to the directly-Internet-connected head end.  For some of the more upscale apartment buildings, netBlazr quickly realized that it would be possible to offer a $60 per month 200 Mbps symmetrical service for clients wanting more bandwidth and who would be inclined to keep their cable TV service operational anyway.

netBlazr soon found out that it's 15 Mbps per second service delivered significantly more reliable video capability than Comcast was able to and, within two months after it went live, it found that it was beginning to get five-star ratings on Yelp which, in the Boston area at least, has cut its operational expenses significantly by enabling primarily word-of-mouth sales and growth rates of about 25% every 90 days. Meanwhile, as its service to individuals began to grow, it also found that enterprises were beginning to sign up, especially some enterprises in parts of the city not reached directly by cable TV and heretofore, having only telephone wires, dependent on copper-based DSL.  In most cases, it found that just delivering reliable service to the tenants of a building was sufficient to enable it to acquire rent-free roof space where, at every node on every roof, they would place a router and three radios to redundantly connect that roof to other points on the overall mesh.

We also describe stage 2 of netBlazr’s plans which focus on the development of a very innovative new radio made possible by a National Science Foundation funded Small Business Grant. This radio is being developed using transparent patch antennas combined with Butler beam steering circuitry such that in about 18 months when the first prototypes are done and after another 18 months when FCC device certification is completed, the radio can be inexpensively mass-produced as a transparent sheet of lexan measuring 10 or 11 inches vertically and perhaps 13 inches horizontally with a non-transparent two centimeter wide strip at the top. In that second 18 moth time frame they guestimate that the majority will be tied up in producing the manufacturable product rather  than the FCC certification.

The idea is that the resulting radio and antenna will be hung by the customer in a window supported by two small cables, one of which is Ethernet with PoE (Power over Ethernet). The radio would be hung by the customer in a window visible to some other point on the existing mesh network. And the beam steering software when activated would establish a directional connection with an accuracy of 10° using MIMO technology.  Then, using software that netBlazr is developing, it would be capable of connecting to the existing mesh on its own without requiring a truck roll and expense of a technician.

Using slides from a January 2014 talk to MIT alumni, as well as technical updates from Brough we explain many of the issues involved in the design and development of these new radios which, when mass-produced, will be game changers Brough has two businesses here.  First is the ISP and a second and very likely far more important business will be a product based business of providing these window hung radios at a mass produced scale that should in able his and other urban-based wireless broadband businesses to scale very significantly.

 

Contents

Executive Summary                                 p.3

Where to Find Long-term Economic Strength          p.5
The Original “Sales to Enterprises” Idea Behind netBlazr           p.6
The Role of Competitive Fiber                            p.8
Point to point Links in a Dense Urban Area                    p. 11
Low Emissivity Glass                                    p. 12
While Business Sales Very Time Consuming
15 meg Symmetrical Residential Sales Gave us Unique Market    p.13
Wanted for a Fair Price – Connectivity that Just Works        p.15
Costs Involved in Getting Access to Buildings                p. 17
A little Bit of the Economics Behind Being an ISP            p. 20

The National Science Foundation Investment
Building a Revolutionary Radio and Antenna as an
Integrated System                                    p. 24
The Details of the Design and the Build                    p. 27
Turning Theory into Reality                            p. 29
Phased Array Beam Steering                            p. 31
Goal is Best Possible Signal to Interference Ratio            p. 33
Complexity of MIMO                                    p. 34
Connection from Window to Window                        p. 40
General Summing up with Regard to the NSF Grant            p. 44

Next Issue                                        p. 48