Mark Steckel pushes open a heavy metal door to the roof of the former Dow building on Independence Mall. Sunlight floods the passageway as he climbs the final steps of a metal ladder and steps onto a flat white roof. Steckel gestures toward Fishtown and the Delaware River.
"You see it," Steckel said, pointing toward a water tank emblazoned with his antennas on a building a couple of miles away that serves as the main broadcast hub for his $50-a-month PhillyWisper high-speed internet service.
When Americans think of wireless, they mostly think of smartphones or free television. But advances in technology and more efficient use of spectrum have opened up the possibility of delivering wireless high-speed internet.
Small wireless internet service providers, or "wisps," are utilizing a combination of unlicensed and licensed spectrum, stitched together with antenna networks, to compete with incumbent broadband providers such as Comcast and Verizon. Wisps have existed for years, mostly in rural parts of America, but seem to be moving into urban areas.
"We're just growing by word of mouth, and we are really busy," Steckel said. The three-year-old PhillyWisper — which tells customers on its website to "Declare Your Internet Independence" and "Just Say No to Big Wire" — has a "few hundred" customers in Fishtown, Kensington, Northern Liberties, and the area around Temple University, Steckel said. Mentions on community Facebook groups also have helped spread the word on PhillyWisper, which is modeled on a San Francisco wisp, Monkey Brains, that Steckel used when he lived there.
Steckel barters and cajoles for Philadelphia rooftops, exchanging free or deeply discounted internet with building owners for the right to place his antennas. Thursday morning, he was taking a chainsaw to a tree that had entwined a 1930s radio tower in Port Richmond to determine whether he could put one of his broadband antennas on it. There needs to be a clear "line of sight" between PhillyWisper's broadcast antennas and antennas at homes and businesses.
Steckel and his PhillyWisper partner, John Falcone, both veterans of start-ups outside Philadelphia, recently hired their first employee, Becky Wolinsky. The business plan calls for PhillyWisper to expand to South and West Philadelphia and grow to 10,000 customers over several years, Steckel said.
"You get into an arms race if you sell on speed and price, and we don't want to do that," Steckel said. "We want to focus on customer service and a positive customer relationship."
PhillyWisper has no contracts and says it won't sell personal data or browsing histories. The company has implemented net neutrality — no blocking of websites or throttling traffic, no fast-speed lanes — as it were the "law of the land," Steckel said.
Customers are responsible to purchase their own WiFi routers as opposed to leasing. It costs $200 for an installation, which comes with a free first month of service. The cost thereafter is $50 a month, with no additional fees or taxes.
PhillyWisper promises minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second. The actual speed to customers is faster, Steckel said. "We promise a minimum but give you more," he said of PhillyWisper's marketing strategy.
Steckel says a lot of the traffic is from Netflix, which recommends 5 megabits per second for high definition quality and 25 megabits per second for ultra high definition quality.
Fishtown resident John Spetrino, who owns the architectural design firm FK Productions at American and Lehigh Streets, said he was PhillyWisper's second customer and is happy with it. Not only does he have PhillyWisper at his business but also at home. Denise, his wife, has it at the Fishtown Montessori School at 307 E. Girard Ave., of which she is the owner and head of school.
"I can text Mark and he gets back to me in 10 to 20 minutes, even on weekends," Spetrino, 33, said. "Once you get that grassroots service, there's no stopping it."
"Ready to Soar," a 32-page industry report on wisps published last year, said there were 2,000 wisp companies delivering service to about four million customers nationwide. The largest is Rise Broadband, based in Englewood, Colo., with about 200,000 customers. The typical wisp serves 1,200 customers.
Jimmy Schaeffler, analyst with the consulting firm Carmel Group in California, which produced the 32-page report, compared fixed wireless to the cable industry in its early days. Capacity constraints limited the number of channels those systems could carry. Then came digital and the 500-channel lineup. In the same way, technology advances have made it possible to deliver super-fast internet speeds over fixed wireless networks.
The wisp economics also make sense. The time it takes to recoup the initial investment to extend a fixed-wireless network to a broadband customer, or the payback period, is about a year, the report says. The same payback for a fiber such as Verizon's Fios is five years.
Consumer acceptance, technology, public policy, and spectrum "are all lining up at the same time," Schaeffler said. "The public does not know the value of this relative to cable and satellite, and they don't know the capability of the technology."
PhillyWisper and other wisps offer two types of service: point-to-point for high-data users such as universities or businesses, and point-to-multi-point service to many homes.
One of PhillyWisper's point-to-point customers is Indy Hall, a co-working space with 350 members for software coders and technology freelancers at Fourth and Market Streets. Alex Hillman, Indy Hall's co-founder, said he switched Indy Hall's internet service to PhillyWisper from Comcast last August after repeated run-ins over service issues.
Hillman said he has been pleased with PhillyWisper's reliability. Weather does not seem to knock out the service, as it does with satellite television. "It's the only proactive customer support I have had from a utility-like company," he said. "It is almost too good to be true. There is no runaround and if there is something wrong, there is an apology."