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With its wireless broadband, Webpass is cord cutters' gateway to the Internet

Cord cutting has taken a bite out of the number of pay-TV subscribers for cable and telecommunications companies.

But it hasn’t significantly reduced high-speed Internet subscriptions — in part because there aren’t many alternatives for over-the-top streamers.

Webpass, now owned by Google, wants to be that alternative — even though today it’s a niche Internet service provider with a small footprint that is limited to apartments, condos and a few commercial buildings.

The San Francisco company is trying to elbow its way into the broadband business where others — including Google Fiber and Verizon FiOS — have had mixed results luring away customers from established cable and telephone company providers.

But unlike these wire-line, fiber optic deployments, Webpass delivers broadband wirelessly.

Founded in 2003, the company uses a daisy chain of point-to-point wireless radios on the rooftops of apartment and condo buildings to serve up bandwidth. It also can tap into fiber optic lines coming into the building from the street.

From there, Webpass taps copper Ethernet cabling behind the walls to deliver speeds ranging from 100 megabits per second to a 1 gigabit per second to customers. The cost is $60 a month.

Speeds depend on the building infrastructure. There’s no modem or other equipment needed. Just an Ethernet jack in the wall. Customers can plug in their TV, router, laptop, game console or other device directly into the jack and have connectivity.

“Regardless of what speeds you’re getting, it is the same price because we are giving you the fastest speeds your building will accommodate,” said Charles Barr, founder and president of Webpass.

Webpass is only available in multi-tenant condos and apartments. It requires what’s known as Cat. 5 or better Ethernet wiring in the building.

“We try to make everything as simple as possible,” Barr said. “So the delivery method to the customer is copper cable. Anything can connect to it. You don’t need any specialized equipment. You just plug in and go.”

Webpass operates in San Francisco, Oakland, Miami, Denver, Boston, Chicago and San Diego. It serves more than 800 buildings nationwide. The company targets complexes with 10 units or more.

A roadblock for Webpass is having to persuade apartment and condo landlords to allow it to offer service in their buildings, which often already have cable or telephone company Internet.

“Webpass has to make the case as to why they are better, and of course many building owners are going to want a piece of the action,” said Erik Keith, principal broadband infrastructure analyst for industry research firm GlobalData.

Webpass must ask permission from the landlord to come on their property. It then must negotiate a contract to offer service.

“AT&T doesn’t have to ask permission,” Barr said. “I am immensely proud of having 175 buildings in San Diego. I could have 1,000 if I didn’t have this requirement.”

Briar Belair, a Webpass user, said one of the biggest benefits is no long-term contracts. Customers pay month to month.

After moving to a new building recently, Belair had to pay a six-month termination fee, even though her pay TV/Internet provider didn’t offer service at her new building.

“I couldn’t get service but still had to pay for it anyway, which is really frustrating from a consumer standpoint,” she said. “Webpass just ensures that won’t be happening.”

Barr said there has been an uptick in the past year of new San Diego multitenant complexes excluding Ethernet wiring.

He believes cable and telephone company providers are offering deals to builders to install only fiber optic or coaxial cable wiring behind the walls to keep Webpass out.

“This is where the dirtiness of the Internet industry becomes apparent,” he said. “That last step from the telecom closet to the customer’s unit is where the game is played right now.”

Without Ethernet, Webpass either has to run new wires to the unit or pass on the business.

“The worst market is Miami for this practice,” Barr said. “San Diego never used to do it, but in the past year it has picked up.”

There are reasons for new buildings to drop Ethernet cables in favor of other options, particularly fiber optics, said Keith, the GlobalData analyst. They include reduced size and weight, lower power consumption and greater bandwidth capacity, which future-proofs the building’s connectivity infrastructure.

“Fiber can go up to 10 gigabits,” he said. “Cat. 5, I don’t think so. Instead of a bundle of Cat 5, you have a single fiber or two fibers that weigh next to nothing.”

Even so, Webpass argues that copper Ethernet is better than fiber for delivering high-speed broadband to each unit in an apartment or condo complex.

“The hard part from a Webpass perspective is customers perceive fiber is correct and copper is wrong, and it is actually the other way around,” said Barr of Webpass. “Fiber is an excellent choice as the backbone of the Internet. It is not an excellent choice to deliver to the end user.”

Ironically, Webpass’ parent company tried to do just that with Google Fiber. But last year Google announced that it would “pause” plans to launch 1-gigabit fiber Internet in nine new cities as it struggled with the costs of deploying fiber.

Google’s purchase of Webpass last year has led to speculation that it might be considering wireless as a less expensive way to deliver bandwidth.

“It is a viable alternative, in part because it reduces the monopolistic congestion at certain points of (wired/fiber) construction where conduit/power pole landlords make life hard or practically impossible to build out in a cost effective and timely manner,” said Cameron Camp, a security researcher at ESET who built a point-to-point wireless network in rural Southern Oregon.

For traditional television and Internet providers, cord cutting has been a growing drag on their subscribers. But these cable and telecommunications outfits show few signs of losing their Internet customers. They have been upgrading their networks to boost speeds to accommodate streaming on Netflix, Hulu and other services.

Cox Communications, San Diego’s largest cable provider, now offers 300 megabits per second service to every household it serves. It also is increasing its deployment of Gigablast fiber to the home offering.

“We hear a lot about cord cutting in the media, but every household is different,” said Suzanne Schlundt, vice president of global marketing for Cox.

Webpass eventually wants to expand its service not only to additional cities but also to single family homes, Barr said. But regulations need to change and technology needs to advance before that will be possible.

“I would love to serve single family homes,” he said. “It’s a matter of technology and business processes that have to come together for us to be able to do it. But we are very focused on it.”

Freeman writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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