Step 1: Evaluate an Area

Before you start building anything or spend any money make sure that you’ve picked a geographical area with the right characteristics to allow you to meet your goals.

These are the characteristics I recommend you evaluate:

Usable Relay Sites

Your wireless network will consist of relay sites where you will install wireless access points that your customers will connect to. These can be on buildings, radio towers, water tanks, or even homes. To provide reliable, fast service each of your customers will need line of sight from their rooftop to one of your relay sites. In other words if you are standing at your relay site you should be able to see the customer’s rooftop and vice versa. In areas with a lot of trees, hills, or buildings this can be very difficult, even impossible.

Make sure that you have plenty of options for relay sites in the areas you’d like to cover. For tips on finding and qualifying specific relays, check out Step 3: Find Relay Sites.

Home Density

Suburbs tend to be great places for WISPs. If the area is too rural you won’t be able to fill up your towers enough to be profitable. In cities the large buildings cause line of sight problems and many people live in apartment buildings.

Ideally you’ll be able to add at least 50 customers to each tower. At a 10% take rate (which is pretty good but not unreasonable) that means you need to be able to see at least 500 rooftops within about 3-5 miles of your tower.

Types of houses / roofs

Some types of roof are easier to install on than others.

  • Shingle roofs are much easier to install on than tile roofs. If most of the roofs in your area are tile you’ll want to carefully plan how you’ll be able to do the customer installs.
  • In general take a look at the home styles in your area and make sure you’d be comfortable working on the rooftops (or hiring a technician and asking them to work on the rooftop)
  • MDUs (Multiple Dwelling Units - apartment buildings, townhomes, attached condos, etc) bring up some unique challenges but can also be very profitable.

Topography

Remember that you’ll need line of sight from your relay sites to each of your customers. Hills can help with this - if you can install your relay site on a structure high up on a hill you might be able to serve a lot of homes.

Hills can also be a problem, of course - too many of them and you won’t be able to find a relay site that has line of sight around the hills to enough homes.

An ideal situation is a valley surrounded by mountains with foothills - find places in the foothills to install your relay sites and you will be able to see all of the homes in the valley.

Fiber availability

You’ll need an upstream fiber connection to get your customers online. Typically you’ll purchase this from a provider like AT&T, Zayo, CenturyLink or XO Communications. Sometimes you can also purchase Dedicated Internet Access from a data center and also rent space on the data center’s roof for your wireless equipment.

Ideally you’ll find a building that already has a fiber connection (an ‘on-net’ building) so you don’t have to pay for any additional trenching, which can be very expensive.

Finding and activating your fiber connection will be one of the most time consuming pieces of getting started with a WISP, so plan ahead and get started early.

Learn more about finding a fiber provider in Step 2: Find a Fiber Provider.

Competition

If the people in your area are already happy/complacent with the Internet service options that they have then you will have a hard time getting customers. Switching Internet providers is a hassle. Even though no one really loves Comcast sometimes the service is just reliable enough to keep people from switching.

Also, many people still like having a bundle (TV/Phone/Internet). You can provide a white-labelled phone product but it’s difficult to provide a white-labelled TV product with the content that people want. Your best bet is to educate your customers to cut the cord and move to streaming providers like SlingTV, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.

Talk to your neighbors and friends and ask if they’d be willing to switch providers and why (price? reliability? speed?) then create your speed and pricing packages based on the needs of the community.