Small Cells and hybrid networks for WISPs: Part 1

Update. Due to some weirdness with a server move this article has been updated at http://blog.j2sw.com/2019/04/25/small-cells-and-hybrid-networks-for-wisps-part-1/

The never-ending goal of any Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) is how to get ever-increasing levels of bandwidth to clients. The always increasing demands, by customers,  on WISPs, and ISPs, in general, are becoming an everyday problem for many operators.  Building a business model on unlicensed spectrum can be a shaky foundation.  Interference and changing rules are just a few things which can influence how a WISP deploys services to a customer. Before we get into this, let’s take a step back and look at how many WISPs have been deploying services up until recently.

The “historical” WISP deployment has been to find the tallest structure around and locate some access points on it.  From there they try and reach out as far as they can to pick up customers.  This distance to the customer may be 3 miles, 5 miles, or even further depending on terrain. When an AP gets too full, you typically add a new one and make sure your antennas don’t overlap as much.   In the past installing customers at these distances has been fine for the 3, 5 and maybe even 10 meg packages which have been sold over the years.  However, the modern definition of broadband by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is 25 megabyte25 Megabits download by 3 Megabits upload. A good number of households are “getting by” with far less, but these customers need access to faster connections.

One way to meet this demand is to take a playbook from the cellular carriers. Small cells, or Micropops as many refer to them as can be a tremendous tool in your toolbox. For this series, I am going to refer to what I am talking about as a small cell and not a micro pop.  Why am I making this distinction? Small cells are something folks familiar with cellular operators understand.  This distinction may seem like such a small difference to you and me, but for the banker, or the city planner this could be a critical thing.  Many times you only have a small opening to present your case for deploying services to a neighborhood or other area.   This opening could be a twenty-minute meeting on a busy Monday or at a town hall meeting with 10 other things on the agenda.  Why not use terms which everyone is familiar with.

One way to increase data rates and modulation to clients is to decrease the distance they are from the Access Point (AP) and the number of clients on the AP.  Cleaner clients on an AP make for a better performing access point. The fewer obstructions you have to go through and even the less air you have to go through allows you to increase modulation to your clients on the AP.  If the clients are closer to the AP, they experience less interference. Imagine how many fewer things your AP hears if it is limited to a one-mile radius as opposed to a five-mile radius

So imagine your typical suburban neighborhood.  This may be a collection of houses in a subdivision within a 1-3 mile radius.

Typical single family home subdivision

Due to houses, terrain, and trees, you may not be able to service these homes with the needed 25meg downloads they are expecting from the historical setup I mentioned above. The tower is just too far awa and is going through too many things to scale to customer demand.

This problem is where the neighborhood small-cell can come in and solve.  Due to land and Home Owner Association (HOA) policies putting up the typical WISP tower is not feasible.  Many homeowners do not want industrial things cluttering up their views, even if it means delivering the high-speed internet they are wanting. Towers can bring down property value.  In our photo above, several poles or small towers ranging from 40-80 feet would be inconspicuous enough to blend in with the neighborhood.

Small Cell on a Pole

Each of these poles may service as many as 20-30 homes. This small customer count per AP keeps the customer count on the AP low, so you are not oversubscribing the Access Points, and also allows each customer to have the max signal to their nearest AP. Due to customers reliance on speed test servers, being able to provide what you sell is critical.  If you are selling 200 meg packages, then the customer should be able to run a 200 meg speed test. In an earlier article, I talk about the problems with speed test servers, but your customers want to get what they expect.

So now that we know why small cells are essential to a WISP, our next articles in this series will focus on the technical aspects of small cell, integrating them into your existing infrastructure, and showing deploying them is not really that scary, hard or expensive.