For many, the San Francisco Bay Area is the undisputed home of internet-based innovation. Where the PC was born. Where search met social media. Where Zoom meetings untethered Americans from the yoke of the physical office place.
But for the past two decades, community-based providers – that is, thousands of upstart internet service providers – have crisscrossed America, delivering internet access services with an adeptness and skill that clearly rivals the Bay Area’s much-vaunted innovative prowess.
But who are these innovators we’ve never heard of?
They’re independent providers of competitive internet access. Using a potent combination of wireless spectrum and fiber, they deliver fixed connectivity to distant rural and hard to serve urban environments. In short, they’re small innovators and entrepreneurs offering needed choice for communities that have been effectively abandoned by legacy phone and cable providers.
They work with the surrounding landscape, community and populace, designing quickly deployed, cost-effective and geographically fearless hybrid networks that traverse empty distances or adroitly maneuver through dense urban environs to bring competitive, affordable internet to those in need.
Millions use these providers to connect to the internet and run their small businesses, telecommute, school their children, keep safe during calamity, see their doctors, stay connected to their families and communities or compete with billions of other individuals in the world’s global economy.
And of course, why wouldn’t they?
They can deliver more broadband, more quickly than much larger companies. Multi-gigabit internet access, which can support any applications found in the most advanced systems anywhere else in America. 4k streaming. Gaming. Telemedicine. Virtual Reality. Zoom. You name it, they do it all.
Take, Starry Internet, which employs cutting-edge mmWave technology to serve competition-starved urban and public housing communities in Boston, New York City, Denver and Los Angeles.
Or Rise Broadband, which CNET voted as the best rural ISP for 2021.
Or Nextlink, which uses fixed wireless – including the novel Citizens Broadband Radio Services band – and fiber optics to bring up to 2Gbps service to under-served commercial, small business, residential, education health care and public sector markets in the greater southwest.
And this doesn’t even mention the countless others in the ecosystem, which develop the software, hardware, infrastructure, and other products and services that maximize WISP networks for their customers and communities.
As Washington works to ensure all Americans have broadband, especially those in the digital divide, community-based providers play an important and growing role in meeting this goal – on their own dime, and in partnership with local, state and federal programs through taxpayer support.
Their work reflects their “future proof” ethos — constant evolution, innovation and improvement to meet the needs of consumers. But it goes beyond simple stress testing, statistical analysis, ongoing research and development or the technology itself. These innovators meet the needs of the real world and real people. They find, create and use the right tool – whether fully fibered architecture, point-to-multipoint wireless systems, mesh network or some combination of the above – to quickly and affordably go where the customer is – and then deliver the customer’s demands.
What incumbent would spend their own money to run a wireless backhaul eight miles across a quiet prairie to a lone grain leg, and then from there break that into fiber connectivity for the surrounding community? Or use short-range, high-capacity spectrum to bring massive internet access into neglected public housing? The answer is: None. But community-based innovators relish this challenge, seeing in it a potent model for growth and community benefit.
Innovation is about realizing solutions that others can’t see. Or won’t do.
It’s about more choices. Access everywhere. Better lives.
It’s about entrepreneurial, innovative community-based providers who are building tomorrow’s connectivity for millions of hard to serve rural and urban Americans today.
Claude Aiken is the president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, representing the interests of small innovative entrepreneurs who provide fixed wireless and other broadband solutions to consumers, businesses, first responders and community anchor institutions across America.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.