For a full decade, I spent large amounts of time writing about broadband and lusting after my own fiber-to-the-home connection. After spending almost $9,000 (which can be spread out over 20 years), I will soon have fiber to my home. But that obviously isn’t a solution for everyone. Indeed, if we want to drive connected devices into the home and place sensors everywhere, the underlying broadband service must be plentiful, cheap, and capacious.
The gaping digital divide faced by so many in the U.S. has been thrown into sharp relief with the pandemic, and has spurred long-overdue policy shifts designed to make better broadband available across the country. But in addition to satellite companies, which have been getting a lot of attention, there are two startups trying to bring bigger and better broadband to various regions of the country: WeLink, which just raised $185 million and is trying to bring wireless gigabit service to a few cities using 5G, and NetEquity Networks, whose business model is about bringing fiber to homes in a manner that resembles a home equity loan.
First up, let’s cover WeLink, which is using millimeter-wave spectrum in the 60 GHz band to build a mesh network that can provide gigabit symmetrical service to neighborhoods for $70 a month. The company’s first network is near Las Vegas, where it places the equivalent of a satellite dish on a subscriber’s rooftop that itself has several 5G radios to catch the signal. From the rooftop, the packets traverse a cable in the home and are then shared on the homeowner’s Wi-Fi network.
The company has had to make several concessions to the limits of the 60 GHz spectrum, but those same airwaves also have benefits. For so long, the 60 GHz band was considered limited because the wavelengths are so short; they can’t pass through water vapor or trees. Nor can they travel far, and they require line of sight in order to transmit data. However, because no one uses this band, there is plenty of capacity on it, meaning there are wide swaths of the airwaves a company can pack with data. Think of it as a wider highway.
That wider highway is how WeLink can deliver gigabit speeds. WeLink can also use some of that extra capacity to retransmit the signals around a neighborhood to help get around disruptions, like buildings or storms. This is how the company makes the notoriously unreliable spectrum reliable enough to deliver fiber-like speeds. Verizon is trying something similar with its fixed wireless networks, which use spectrum in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands.
The recent funding will allow WeLink to expand its footprint to parts of Arizona and seven other markets in the next year. Luke Langford, WeLink’s president, says that the company can connect a home for a tenth of the cost of fiber. The goal is to provide competition for high-speed internet in the communities it enters. For many Americans, if high-speed internet is available, it’s only available from a cable provider. And Lord knows cable providers use the lack of competition to their advantage.
WeLink’s strategy still relies on some fiber simply to backhaul the traffic from its network out to the public internet. It’s a strategy that won’t help deliver broadband to rural areas, where the distance between homes is too great for the mesh network to bridge. For rural areas, satellite or cellular is the primary option, and those come with limits on speed and capacity, and at a high cost.
To bring fiber to those areas requires federal funding or a different approach. Isfandiyar Shaheen, the founder and CEO of NetEquity Networks, has created such an approach and is working with companies and municipalities to build it out. His twist on bringing fiber to the home is both technical and financial. On the technical side, he’s looking at technologies such as rapid-spooling fiber along existing electrical lines, as pioneered by Facebook. This makes it cheaper to deploy fiber because there’s no need to dig to place the tubes of glass into an underground conduit.
His second innovation is financial. He believes a fiber connection will increase the value of a home so much that he’s willing to lend money to homeowners for their fiber installation, using the increase in their home’s equity as the means to pay off that loan. The idea is that if it costs $10,000 to get fiber to the home, he’d work with the homeowner to create a 20-year repayment plan that only requires the homeowner to pay the principal (roughly $42 a month for 20 years). Once the loan comes due with the massive interest payment at the end, he would require the homeowner to either pay it outright or assign to him a percentage of equity in their homes to repay it.
Shaheen says the plan is to halt repayments at 10% of the equity, but there’s a lot of complexity in this model that will raise eyebrows. I’d want to spend a lot more time understanding the risks. I’m not even sure that fiber to the home will actually boost the overall value of a home in all places. But I am glad there are still people out there trying to bring better and more competitive broadband to more places. You can’t have the internet of things if you don’t have the internet.