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Vistabeam Internet: Driven to Connect Rural Communities - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 315
When you hear founder and CEO Matt Larson talk about his company Vistabeam Internet, you’ll understand he and his team received the 2018 Provider of the Year Award at Mountain Connect. At the conference in June, Matt sat down with Christopher to discuss what it’s like to be in his shoes — starting up and operating a wireless Internet service company primarily in the rural areas in some of the most rural areas of the country.
It’s been about a decade and a half since Matt’s company began serving its first customers as Skybeam. The endeavor soon became Vistabeam and continued to expand throughout the areas where Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming meet. Vistabeam continued to grow, and now the company coverage area spans approximately 40,000 square miles. Matt explains his motivation behind starting Vistabeam and widening the service area as a way to connect people without Internet access and to bring a little competition to areas where incumbents needed “inspiration.”
In the interview, Matt describes some of the practicalities of working in the field and how his company has dealt with similar unique challenges. He also shares the way Vistabeam has evolved as technology has improved over the years and the differences between providing service in extreme rural areas and more densely populated areas. In this interview, you’ll go from policy to practicality and learn about the experiences of a local provider.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Matt Larson: If there's a place that that we can figure out a way to get to them, and get them a better level of service, even if all it does is inspire the other providers there to step their game up and provide a better level of service, I consider that to be kind of a good job to try and do.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 315 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Back in June, while Christopher was at the Mountain Connect conference in Vail, Colorado, he had the chance to sit down with several speakers at the conference, including Matt Larson, founder of Vistabeam Internet. The company began offering wireless Internet back in 2004 and has since expanded. They now provide services in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. In this interview, Matt explains his motivations for continuing to grow the company and their service area, which now covers approximately 40,000 miles. He describes how Vistabeam has helped create competition in rural areas where residents were one stuck with what they had, and how that competition has inspired incumbents to improve services. Matt also describes what it's like in the field, deploying their equipment. He also talks about daily challenges and working with different agencies for funding opportunities. His insight explains how the company grew to become the 2018 Provider of the Year, the award they took home from the Mountain Connect conference. Learn more about the company at Vistabeam.com. Now here's Christopher with Matt Larson from Vistabeam Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Today I'm in Vail, Colorado for the Mountain Connect event, one of the my favorite events. I'm sitting across from one of the sponsors of it, and someone who just won an award. We'll talk about that a little bit. Matt Larson, the wireless cowboy and founder of Vistabeam. Welcome to the show.
Matt Larson: Nice to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: So you got an award today at lunch and, from Mountain Connect, which is very well deserved. Uh, WISPA, the Wireless ISP Association, noted that it's the second year in a row that a wireless ISP or primarily-wireless ISP has one it. Um, and then the, the, the person that was, giving you the award said you served 40,000 square miles of this country.
Matt Larson: Yeah, yeah. I started out Vistabeam in 2004. We had, I think we had three towers and part of a borrowed T1, that we used to start with. And what's funny is, you know, you, you put stuff up, and it's like, "Hey, I can see that hill over there, you know, I can see this way." And before long, you know, we had spread out to cover a lot of area because we would continually get calls from people, that'll be, like, just of our service area saying, "Hey, we need to get, we need to get better Internet out here." So, you know, we would, you go around and you look and it's like, "Well, can we get on this hill? Could we get on this grain leg? Uh, is there a tower over there that we can afford rent some space on?" And just kept growing out and building. And we, we did do a couple of, uh, we've done a few acquisitions of smaller operators that either weren't gonna make it or wanted to get out of the business and kind of added them on. And the next thing you know, it's, you know, an eight hour drive from one end of my network to the other. So it's a, uh, it's a challenge. But I like to think we just kind of followed where the demand was. We went where there were people asking for better service and...
Christopher Mitchell: I get the idea that if you wanted to, you could stop expanding and retire somewhere comfortably and chill out. But it doesn't seem to be in the cards for you.
Matt Larson: There's a law of physics, the law of business physics, you can only get so far before you run out of human power or capital to make it happen. And I, I thought that we would expand as far as we could go until last summer. And then, you know, we had a neighboring wireless ISP that, uh, wanting to get out and, you know, it's like, okay, well we can make this fit with our, with our deal, and we figured out how to make it work, but, you know, then, oh, we just added another hour and a half drive to the east of how far we have to go. Um, but yeah, it's, it comes across my mind once in a while. I think about, you know, if we'd of just stay a little smaller, this would have been a lot easier. Uh, but I also feel pretty passionate about what we do. One of the places we expanded into last year was Walden, Colorado; you know, there was a, an entire county that their entire broadband footprint consisted of about one square mile in the middle of the town. And the maximum speed anybody could get was 10 meg. And even that was very unreliable. And they needed somebody to get them some alternatives. So, uh, I, I had a former customer from Nebraska that moved down there and he's like, "Let's call, let's call it Vistabeam and see what they can do." And we figured out a way to uh, you know, make a hop through the mountains to get them broadband and now we've got a group of customers there and they have better broadband because we went out and tried to help them out. I wouldn't say it was like a great financial decision by any means, you know, it kind of stretched us out a little bit and we probably could have deployed the capital in a way that would have made us more money somewhere else. But we deployed it in a sustainable way, and we deployed it in a way that is going to make a difference for these people even if we -- you know, we don't have to have every customer in that county. And once we did get our service down there, oh, CenturyLink finally figured out how to upgrade their stuff. So, they started competing with us on DSL and improving their service. So even though, yeah, it'd be nice to have a monopoly, it was also really good to basically have an alternative to the company that was not treating them very well and that's a sort of thing, that kind of opportunity. I still like to go out and pursue if, if there's a place that, that we can figure out a way to get to them and get them a better level of service, you know, even if all it does is inspire the other providers there to step their game up and provide a better level of service, then I think that's, I consider that to be kind of a good job to try and do.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk a little bit about the technology that you're using. I know you're primarily wireless because I know you also do some fiber. Um, I think many WISPs are moving in that direction of using both where appropriate. But for someone who's not familiar, what is fixed wireless and how does it work?
Matt Larson: So fixed wireless is basically, if I go all the way back to the original history of it, you know, we were taking an indoor Wi-Fi access point, and putting an outdoor antenna on it, and shooting it several miles to connect to somebody. What we've seen is over the last 25 years, you know, the equipment has really evolved. When we started out, we were able to do one meg was about the top speed that we could offer. The equipment's just gotten better and better, even though at its core it's essentially the same thing as what we started out with. You know, it's a Wi-Fi-based chip set on both ends with outdoor antennas that's been modified to be very interference resistant and to deliver much higher rate of speed. A lot of people think wireless and they're thinking cell phones. So the biggest difference with fixed wireless is we actually put a big antenna on the roof, you know, not necessarily big, but it depends on how far away they are from the access point.
Christopher Mitchell: Certainly big compared to a cell phone
Matt Larson: Big compared to a cell phone, definitely. But the thing is, the bigger antenna you have, that means you can get a higher signal. When your cell phone's got like one bar or two bars, it barely works. So what we're doing is having the equivalent of a very, very strong signal. That gives us the signal-to-noise ratio to be able to offer a very high speed and a very reliable speed. That means we can have, you know, right now the package that we're, we're pushing with all of our newest technology is, you know, 50 meg for $50 a month. And that's a speed that we feel we can go out and deliver with today's technology very easily. We can make it reliable. It's got low latency. I think that's probably going to be adequate for most people. Uh, it's, it's not like having fiber, but it's also something we can deploy in areas at a very low cost compared to fiber. And then we tie back, we're going to have to tie back into fiber at some point anyway. So what I think makes a lot of sense is, you know, we go out with the fixed wireless, we get people on now and address their immediate need, and then over a period of years, you know, it might be, you know, three, four years, it might be seven or eight years, however long it takes. Then I think fiber will get built out to the places where it makes sense to build it out, even if it's to feed smaller cells of wireless. Uh, we're going to need to do that to kind of keep up with, with a lot of the bandwidth demands. But that's the long and short of how the technology gets out to the customer. To get that Internet out to the customer, there's also, you know, we have to have a colocation. We do have a lot of fiber. We either rent fiber. We do have about 25, 30 miles of our own fiber that we either own and put in or we have IRUs on. We have a lot of licensed microwave links that're capable of doing gigabit speed. Uh, we have a lot of unlicensed links; we'll use those for the last couple of hops to get out to somebody that's really remote. But, putting the system together in that way, we've been able to design a network that's really reliable. Uh, it's very robust, you know, we've got backup connection. So if one tower goes down, it doesn't mean five other towers are affected, you know, we have everything you can like reroute and go around outages. We're working on kind of improving our power setup. We don't have like this giant -- when we started out, we would just plug in the radio and plug it into the outlet and go, well nowadays, you know, we're, we're, we've really stepped up our game on trying to make sure that we've got good, reliable power. You know, people ask about, you know, is wireless reliable, and it's like, honestly, it's as reliable as the power grid is because uh, most of the outages we have are related to failures on the power grid. Weather comes through, you know, wireless connection goes down, it's probably because the power went out to where the, you know, or something got hit by lightning. So that's kind of fixed wireless in a nutshell.
Christopher Mitchell: 50 dollar for 50 megs. What's the upload speed?
Matt Larson: So the upload speed on that is five meg, and the reason we do that is when you deal with wireless, um, you've got time slots. So just imagine within, within one second you've got like a thousand little tiny time slots where you can send data back and forth. What we ended up doing is we devote more time slots for the download because that's what most people want and that's, that's what we see on our traffic pattern. So what we've done is we've optimize the network to be able to offer the higher download speeds that way. And then if we had to, we could allocate more time slots to the upload if that's what seemed to make more sense. But to run the network the most optimal fashion and meet what our customers are actually using it for, it makes more sense to optimize it for the download.
Christopher Mitchell: When you get into more urban areas, um, don't you have other technological options for having different wireless technologies where you would be able to offer more symmetrical speeds if you wanted to? I'm just, I'm just thinking of some of the WISPs I'm familiar with, particularly urban WISPs, they seem to be more symmetrical. Maybe it's just because it's a shorter distance.
Matt Larson: Well like, so when I'm talking about this 50 meg for 50, that's like going off of a shared access points, we have to optimize it. So when we're dealing with commercial customers, most of the time we do like a point-to-point and that's like a dedicated radio on our end and a dedicated radio on their end, and that's a situation where we can optimize the upload/download to what they want. So if you've got a business that wants to have 50 meg down and 50 meg up, then we can go in and optimize that to work that way. When you get into like closer ranges, we start to get a lot more options. So there's, there's been a lot of development in some of the higher frequency, unlicensed spectrum bands, especially 24 gigahertz and then 60 gigahertz. 60 gigahertz is actually really closely -- that's called millimeter wave and that's the sort of thing that they start talking about, uh, as being part of 5G. Now millimeter wave, I don't think it's going to work very well at all for 5G because it's very directional, it's very short range, it does have a lot of capacity though. So we can take point-to-point 60 gigahertz and actually do gigabit speed wireless with it. We just recently did that in a town in Wyoming that uh, they, they just had DSL and some very low-speed cable, no fiber provider there. So we've actually put gigabit wireless in the downtown area and we're starting to put customers on that, on that system and we can optimize that to have the same upload and download for whatever, whatever applications that we're going to use it for. And so far it's been, it's been really well received by the business community in this town because previously they were struggling with like 10 meg packages and you know, that was, that was all they were able to get from DSL.
Christopher Mitchell: Probably advertised this 10 meg and not quite delivering it from the provider. Um, I'm curious about a telephone service. You do telephone service on your network?
Matt Larson: Yes, we do.
Christopher Mitchell: So you do telephone service and a very reliable Internet product that's high speed, certainly higher than what the FCC defines as broadband. Um, how much money do you get from the FCC compared to CenturyLink and other big providers that are in your area?
Matt Larson: We've never done anything with any federal programs up to this point. I'd like to kind of see what happens with the Connect America Fund, you know, hopefully there'll be an opportunity for us to participate in that, but we haven't gotten anything from the FCC...seeing millions and millions of dollars in subsidies poured into companies that compete with us.
Christopher Mitchell: And compete with an inferior product. Vastly inferior product.
Matt Larson: You said it, not me.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. [Laughter].
Matt Larson: But, I wouldn't disagree with your characterization of it. Uh, yeah. Where we've really had a lot of success is in, we've had some success with the state. So, after we got Internet into the town of Walden, Colorado for example, we applied for a grant from the Colorado Broadband Fund to extend that service out to the rest of the county. So we were successful. We were awarded that grant, so we intend to use that to build out, I think we're looking at about 16 small towers around the county so we can get that extended out to everyone. So it's not just the people who live in town or the people live really close to tower. We can, we hope we can get to everyone. We've done several programs with the state of Nebraska. Uh, they had a Nebraska Internet Enhancement Fund for communities that don't have adequate Internet access. I just found out when I was driving down to the show on Monday that we got $25,000 grant for a little town in Nebraska to rebuild their cable system. And we actually, we bought the cable system and then kind of found out that cable's a little bit more complicated and we thought, it's a little more complicated than wireless. So uh, but we're going to go do that. But the long and short of it is, we've had a lot more success working with state programs and local initiatives in Nebraska. They have a program called LB840 that provides money for job creation, and then they will also do low-interest loans. So late last year we got a $100,000 grant for job creation, you know, $10,000 a job and then we got a $50,000 low-interest loan to use to help build our network out. And that was huge for us. And the thing that's nice about it is, it's a lower burden on, you know, of paperwork. When dealing with the federal deals, it's like about you have to take 15, 20 percent off the top just to deal with regulatory compliance. You know, working with some of these local entities and the states has been far, far easier than trying to deal with a federal program. That's where I think a lot of the alternative providers out there can look at local and state resources to try and get something put together.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk a little bit about, like if we're looking at this, this area of Colorado where you're building out to the county, I'm really curious, what does it take to cite a tower? To like go from, I'm assuming a computer program that tells you the optimal location to figuring out how to get that tower in place and putting radios on it. I'm sure it's probably a long process, but what are the highlights?
Matt Larson: One of the first things that really got the process rolling was talking to a local. And the guy that owned the local newspaper seemed like he knew everyone, and so we sat down and was like, "Okay, well how about here?" You know, he's like, "Well, I think if you put one there, this guy owns this ranch and I think he'd be good to talk to." And we just kind of went around and, and -- you know, traditionally, cell phone carriers, they pull up a list of all the commercial towers in an area and then it's like, all right, we'll rent this one, we'll rent this one, we'll rent this one, this is the equipment we need, you know? And it's, it's kind of a straightforward process. Doing it in this county, very different. I think there's only two commercial towers in the entire county. Uh, so I went through and, you know, worked with this local to kind of figure out where people were and uh, the places where we'd have some demand and we put together kind of a map of the places we needed to get to. We've got that. So, first step is we have to figure out where we want to go. Then we have to secure, you know, some kind of an agreement with a landowner that we can put something there. And one of the things that makes that a lot easier for us is we've developed a portable tower that can basically deploy in an afternoon. Uh, it's, uh, it's got like four outriggers and it goes up about 30 feet and we can roll out there and it's got, it's got a couple of solar panels and a battery pack. We do all the, every, we have everything preassembled, show up onsite, move it off the trailer, put out the outriggers. It's got a flip up tower, so we flip, flip it down, put the tower sections on, do all of our wiring, mount all of our equipment while it's down on the ground. Lift it up into site and then the guy climbs up and points everything, and by the end of the day it's working.
Christopher Mitchell: And you don't need to get a permit from local government to do that? You just need the permission of the landowner?
Matt Larson: Yep. Not a hundred percent certain, but I think it falls under OTARD guidelines because A) it's, it's a, it's a temporary structure. It's under 30 feet, so we're generally not deploying anywhere near an airport so we don't need to worry about any kind of FAA regulations. Um, there's no permitting to like do you trenching or dig a hole or to run fiber power to or anything like that. So it's really like literally the fastest way to try and deploy Internet into a location. So, the way we have this lined up for that county is we're looking at placing probably 10 of those portable towers out there and each one, the idea is each one should have probably a 200 to 250 meg, uh, worth of backbone capacity and should have enough capacity to handle like up to 75 customers. We kind of conservatively estimate that if we put up, put up an access point we could probably put about 25 people in these towers. We typically will have three sectors. So we dropped those out, and then we go around and once they're there we visit them once a year hopefully, unless there's, you know, damage or lightning or something like that.
Christopher Mitchell: Are they vulnerable to wind and things like that? I mean, I'm curious, you said they're not, they're not permanent structures. So how long does something like that last and what happens next?
Matt Larson: The very first one we installed, I think we've had it up for five years, it is between Hannah and Rawlins, Wyoming. If there's a windier place in the US, you would be very hard pressed to find it because that place, the wind just blows and blows and blows. But we are on top of the hill there and it has had four pretty big dishes on it. Uh, we may have actually added another dish to it, but it's got four good sized two foot or larger dishes on and it's been sitting there for five years and we have never had a problem with it. I'm not saying one couldn't get tipped over and knocked over, but if it does, there's bigger problems in the area.
Christopher Mitchell: [Laughter]
Matt Larson: So I, my experience with them has just been a, it's been fantastic having a tool like that and you know, and the, the other thing that's really nice and we really haven't had to worry about this yet, uh, is, you know, if we have a dispute with the land owner or something comes up and we can't keep it at that location, then we pack everything up and we move it to a new location.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's what I was curious about also you, I mean with a landowner agreement, is that typically, I've heard some people talk about just giving the landowner free Internet access. I'm guessing it varies from landowner to landowner.
Matt Larson: Yup. Yup. Uh, you know, a lot of the places where we're doing this stuff, it's a landowner wants some free Internet. Uh, so the deals vary widely, uh, you know, it's, it's a little bit cleaner if we can just say, well here we'll, we'll sell you a service and then we'll pay your rent. You know, that way it looks a bit cleaner, because then you've got, we get too many of these exchanges and you know, and it kind of starts to throw off, kind of starts to throw things off. So our preference is to just pay, just just pay land rent. If somebody wants Internet, then we make it available to them. So that, that's the way we like to do it. But there's a lot of trade still out there, you know, you get busy and you know, we're at the point, I think we've got 300 sites and they range from, you know, being on giant commercial towers to a pipe sticking out of the ground. I mean we've, believe it or not, there's a few places where we have that, that that's a lot of stuff to keep track of. Big cell phone companies have entire floors in their corporate offices that deal with that. Uh, and we, we kind of have to go through and get that all ironed out. We have most of them pretty clear, uh, and we've got the process down.
Christopher Mitchell: You don't drag power to them then, I mean, the solar panel's strong enough to take care of, it doesn't collect snow or anything? How does that work?
Matt Larson: We've got some that we have to go visit, wipe the snow off of, but we've kind of got it figured out. What's really interesting is when you work with solar power, you find out that everything looks great until about December 10th. So you find out that almost every outage that we had last year came between December 10th of January 10th and it was a function of either snow-covered panels or just the fact that that's when the sun is at the lowest.
Matt Larson: Well, actually this last year, we had one site in particular we had a problem with because it was built to handle X -- you know, it was built to handle like three devices. We'd gone out and done an upgrade and added two more devices to the tower, but we forgot to add more solar capacity or battery capacity.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, the battery draw.
Matt Larson: So we were fin, except for the last three days of December. You know, at 2 in the morning the site would go offline and then it wouldn't come back on until 8 or 9:00 in the morning when the sun got up and was putting out the power. And other than that window at the end of the year is that, that's where we have problem with solar. Um, we had a little, we do have some sites where we have wind. Uh, and actually, you know, in an ideal world you'd have a small, you'd have your panels and you have wind because a little bit of wind will charge up batteries really fast. The problem in Wyoming is there's so much wind it shreds the generators. Literally the, I've, I've seen generators, we've got two and the blades were gone. They just blew off or they seized up because the bearing couldn't take all the winds. So everything's got its own challenges. But we've, we've gotten to the point where I feel like the, uh, the solar, we've been deploying those for almost 10 years now. The technology's gotten better and our monitoring system has gotten to the point where we're starting to see, you know, we start to get alerts ahead of time. So hopefully two, three days ahead of time we can say, all right, we're going to have to visit the site and either put in fresh batteries or putting in a work ticket to upgrade the solar.
Christopher Mitchell: So one of the, one of the common complaints that I have when I'm talking to people in rural areas and the subject of WISPs comes up, is there's a number of WISP operators that are giving the entire technology a bad name in some ways. Some of them are, are overstating what they can deliver or they're not delivering the reliability. And um, I'm just curious if, um, if that's something that bothers you or you feel like degrades your branding and that sort of thing or um, you know, how do you react to those who are out there publicly arguing that no one needs more than two megabits a second and um, and that sort of thing.
Matt Larson: There's wild variance among all ISPs. Even Comcast, there's places where Comcast just works awesome, there's places where Comcast doesn't work very well.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure, yeah.
Matt Larson: All I can do is control what my company does. You know, we've put a lot of effort into trying to upgrade our product and do the best job we can in taking care of our customers. So there's gonna be some people the are not happy. The errors generally fall into two, two things. One of them is a problem with deployment, where it's real easy with wireless to get your first few links up and your first few customers on, and to see like these amazing results and be like, wow, everybody's going to have these great speeds and all this, and then the complication just increases exponentially. There's kind of a rule of thumb. It seemed like early on there was lots of wireless ISPs could get to about 100 customers, because that's about all one person could take care of it. And sometimes you'd see them hit 200, but if they didn't figure out how to scale, you really had to get from like, 100 customers, one guy can kind of moonlight that. Five hundred customers is going to take two, three people really take care of it, and then the next one was like a 1,000 customers and then 2,000. And it's kind of generally considered 2,000 customers, once you hit that point, that's like a sustainable point, and that goes back all the way to dial-up ISP days. Most of the big mistakes are made by companies that either don't know how to deploy, there are some very well capitalized companies, uh, you know, small telephone companies, electric utilities, uh, some towns that had all the money in the world and didn't know how to deploy their equipment. You know, one of the best examples of that was what EarthLink did in Philadelphia. You know, that's, that's I'm really dating myself there. That's old. That's from like 2004, 2005. You've probably heard stories about that. Uh, their deployment methodology was complete BS. There was no way that network would ever work. It was a complete hoodwink on, you know, the people of the city and investors to try and try and see that. I remember being at ISP Con with one of my friends that runs a WISP and you know, they were up on the stage giving a presentation and they asked the guy a technical question and I don't even remember what the deal was, but uh, my friend John and I, we nearly had tears in our eyes because we were laughing so hard at how bad, it's like these people have no idea what they're doing. So that's, that's, that's one side of it, is there some well-capitalized companies that just don't know what they're doing or overestimated how the stuff works. It can be a little random. It takes some experience to kind of figure out how to deal with some different problems. And I think a lot of utility companies and, and cities, they, they kind of want something that's predictable that it's like, okay, this is going to do exactly, I'm going to spend this much money, this piece of equipment is going to do exactly what I want to do, it's gonna continue to do that for the next 30 years. Wireless, it's the sort of thing where under these conditions I'm going to put it in and it's going to do this, but then I add more people and the performance is going to change and then I have to work around somebody else, puts some other wireless stuff up and I have to deal with that --
Christopher Mitchell: That's exactly what I wanted to ask you. Yeah.
Matt Larson: And, and you just, you really have to. It really takes a while to kind of develop a feel for it. Um, so like I said on once I got well capitalized people don't really know what they're doing. And then on the other side, I think you've got like some guys that are like real tech heads, there's something like really good, really intelligent people that are doing things but they aren't capitalized enough and so they may not have the ability to go out and upgrade to later equipment or to try and change their deployment methodology. Uh, and you know, that we've, we've done several acquisitions of guys that got started and they were doing okay, but then they just realize this wireless ISP thing things a lot of work, so.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's what I was wondering. If you had, I'm sure you've had those days where you're kind of thinking, oh, I have 10 things on my to do list and then you get a call that maybe in a part of your network, there's some interference that just came out of nowhere and you have to go and investigate and try to deal with that.
Matt Larson: Yeah. It's, honestly the interference part is not as bad as you might think.
Christopher Mitchell: Not In western Nebraska perhaps as much, like I was I think I was thinking of Monkeybrains in San Francisco, I think they have a, a challenging environment. But I mean I could very well be wrong. I'm just making an assumption.
Matt Larson: You'd be surprised. I, I, uh, there, there's one town in Wyoming with three WISPs in it that are all successful and very active and I would put that noise floor up against anywhere. I, I think, you know, especially, you know, we've got five gigahertz where you've got like 150 megahertz worth of spectrum shared by multiple providers that all have, you know, there's probably 75 or more outdoor high-power access points all pointed at each other. So it is, it was like all out RF war there. I don't know that you would find anything a whole lot worse than that in downtown San Francisco. Luckily that's kind of one of the rare cases. There were a lot of early naysayers that talked about, you know, Tragedy of the Commons, how there was going to be, you know, there's only room for one good guy WISP, but as soon as another one moves in, they're all going to fight each other and then everything's going to degrade and then it's just gonna fall apart. What's happened is technology has gotten a lot better, so we have a competitor that runs the same type of equipment we do and we're actually working on a program where we're going to synchronize our channels and use GPS synchronization, which will essentially eliminate us interfering with them and them interfering with us. I think there's some opportunity to kind of work together. For the most part, we've been lucky to have operators that are pretty respectful. I would prefer to build a relationship rather than try and go in and, you know, step on somebody's throat, take their market over. I've got lots of places where I stayed out of a location that I probably could've gotten into because I knew that there was a guy there that was doing a pretty good job. You know, that that has actually worked out really well because sometimes those people, those areas we didn't go into, when those guys wanted to sell, they came to me or you know, instead of going to somebody else, so.
Christopher Mitchell: So as we're, as we're wrapping up a little bit, there's a lot of other topics and for people who aren't familiar, you and I have debated each other.
Matt Larson: Yes, we have.
Christopher Mitchell: Both here at Mountain Connect in a previous year and on, um, on the economics of or architecture economics, I forget the exact name of the, the lists that we're, we're both on. And at times I have been uncivil because of the strength of our, of our disagreement. Um, but uh, you know, I've definitely learned a lot from you over the years and there's a lot of things I'd love to talk about in a, in a future show. Um, but the biggest question I have, just as we're exploring your business model and what it's like is what's your biggest headache on a, on a daily basis as a, as a large WISP.
Matt Larson: You know, really the biggest headache is trying to figure out how to scale up our operation right now. The headache shifts, you know, it's different parts of your body hurt depending on what you're dealing with. You know, at one point it was financing and you know, trying to come up with access to capital to be able to build out. When we first started, you know, you got to try and get a loan and it's like, well I want to put some things up on top of an antenna and antennas will get struck by lightning, you know? No, they don't want to -- bank'll alone, you know, a farmer $400,000 to buy a tractor because they know they can go back and get that tractor and turn around and sell it at a loss. You know, I want to borrow $400,000 to put up a bunch of wireless equipment that's of no use to them whatsoever. If, if, uh, you know, I can't make the deal work. So it was really hard at first to get access to financing. So, that was probably one of our early ones. Right now, I think one of the biggest things we're dealing with is getting enough people that and, and, and getting the processes developed. We're a fairly mature business compared to a lot of WISPs and you know, we're working really hard on kind of building a process map and kind of trying to standardize. You know, one of the reasons McDonald's got so successful is because they were able to take something and like make a very efficient process. That's one of the things we're trying to do, but it's really hard to do that and run the business at the same time and try to kind of push everything forward. You know, right now I would say we're kind of dealing with some scale issues and trying to figure out how we kind of take the leap to the next level. That's probably the, that's probably the biggest headache. There's so many other things that could potentially be issues, you know. One of the things I like about WISPs is they're kind of a regulatory bypass. So if somebody wants to screw with you on right-of-way, you know, for like doing fiber, it's like fine, I'll just go to the top. Boop! There, I've got, I just put a back haul. I don't have to deal with the phone company, I don't have to deal with negotiating with the county or anybody else. I can do this connection and there isn't anything anybody else can do about it. That, that is a very freeing thing because I feel like a lot of our right-of-way regulation especially is used to maintain monopoly position. You know, we saw that with what Google had to deal with trying to get on, on power poles.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Matt Larson: So fortunately that's, that's not one of our headaches, you know, I think probably coming up, Spectrum is going to be a little bit of a headache. Uh, we, we've had a pretty good run, uh, putting stuff up in 5 Gigahertz. 2.4 is kind of gotten to the point where it's not very usable anymore. Uh, but 4 gigahertz is getting really full in a lot of places. So we're going to need to have access some more spectrum, you know, CBRS and 3.5 I think has hopefully has the potential to help with that, but we can't just give it all to the mobile carriers because then they're gonna come in and try and offer, you know, like AT&T is offering what they call their fixed wireless, you know, and it's a $60 a month for 10 meg and you know, that 10 meg is about two, three in the morning, the rest of the time and it's like barely functional to even do email. I think making sure that we've got an environment where a small operator has a short enough hurdle to get into the business and then doesn't have to drop so much capital on things like spectrum and right-of-way and that sort of thing that it takes away from their ability to go out and build a network and provide a really good level of service.
Christopher Mitchell: That's one of those issues that I just want to, I think is worth touching on the CBRS because where I think Wheeler got the right, the rules more or less, right in terms of trying to encourage smaller license sizes so that WISPs had more of a shot rather than having to bid on a massive territories.
Matt Larson: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: And um, and I find it really frustrating that, um, that it seems like now whenever there's a political transition, all these things that we thought more or less were settled get re-opened because the incumbents figure out a way to, to convince people that the old compromises aren't good enough anymore and you can rewrite them.
Matt Larson: Yeah. I heard somebody likened it to the way that the cell guys are trying to redo the, the access to CBRS, it's like I want to rent a flower shop. I want to rent the entire mall.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Matt Larson: And they want it so you have to rent the entire mall and then turn around and sell it. Oh, there are so many things about spectrum policy that drive me completely up the wall. I went completely off script on a presentation earlier at this conference, uh, know we were talking about a 2.5, which there was wireless cable and then there was some spectrum set aside for educators in there and it was all from mid '90s where this was kind of set up and they haven't released any new spectrum in there. And this is like prime spectrum for the kind of business that I have. You know, 2.5 you can run enough power that you could go through trees. You could still offer really high capacity. You know, it carries for a long distance. It's just like ideal for rural and it's all sitting there because of rules that were set up for something -- and the schools don't use a spectrum for education, they use it to turn around and lease to cell phone companies. And it just drives me up the wall that, you know, we listen to the lawyers and everybody talk about, well we're going to see if we can work out a deal. We have to have a compromise with the schools, you know, if you really want to get spectrum you need to talk to the school about this, you know, and hopefully the FCC will grant this white space thing and it's like, it's so backwards. I mean, just this is, this is dumb. It's almost like, I just want to say it would be so great if somebody would say, look, this is null and void as of January 1.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, we had what we thought was a good idea. It didn't work out the way we thought it would. We're gonna use it for a higher value.
Matt Larson: We're going to redo it. Yeah. And, and there, there was another spectrum proceeding we were looking at, had to do a C band satellite and C band it's, that's, that's a spectrum, it's used a lot for broadcasting stuff up and down to, you know, satellites, but it can also, it's also really good for terrestrial use and those two things should be very compatible because --
Christopher Mitchell: You're not going to get in the way
Matt Larson: Unless I really screwed up an install, the antenna's not going to be pointed at any satellites, you know, it's going to be pointing to something on the ground. So theoretically you should be able to use that. So the rules for that were set up in 1967. So we're talking about rules that were set up over 50 years ago and we have seen, I don't know about you, but I think driving a 1967 car versus driving a 2018 car, huge difference in the technology. You can take that times 10 and look at the differences between what we had for radio technology in 1967 versus the stuff that we've got available to us now. You know, we've got radios that can redefine, you know, their software definable. That can go back and forth on the frequency they use. They can pick out what's noise and what's not noise and do all these different things, all these different amazing things that we can do and we're using spectrum policy that's 50 years old. It was designed for 50 year old technology that should, that should really get looked at and be redone. Uh, I think that's gonna be my new you know, you're familiar with me ranting on the mailing list that we're on. I think that's going to be one of my new soapbox points is we need to just chuck a lot of this stuff and try and figure out how to start over. But you know, honestly, I don't know how we do that other than to figure out a way, you know, articulate a vision of what would this look like if we were to change the way that we handle this type of a problem. Even though we don't always agree about what's the right way to do it, I think we both are trying to figure out ways to get outside the box and let's say, all right, let's look at, let's look at the end result. What we want to get for an end result and try and figure out what would be the most direct way and take a lot of these rules and structures and different things that exist that make it hard to do and try and figure out how to either bypass them or sweep them out of the way. Uh, there's, there's just been so much acceptance of some of the bureaucracy and some of the, the weird structures that are out there in the marketplace that it would be great if we could figure out a way to do to redo this so that we could responsibly and reliably go out and, uh, take care of people's needs primarily.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. I think that's a really good way to end the show. We'll save a more controversial conversation for later. And, um, love the love to have you back on.
Matt Larson: I look forward to it.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher speaking with Matt Larson from Vistabeam Internet. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us podcast@Muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. You can follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. You can also follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power and Local Energy Rules. You can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thanks to Arne Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle," licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 315 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.