Susan Saurastri readily recalls the times she would have to get up from her couch in the middle of watching a movie on Netflix to reset her modem because her internet kept glitching. It happened regularly at her Fountain Valley home.
The hefty price tag Saurastri said she paid to Spectrum for phone, internet and television services — $90 a month initially before increasing to $150 a month — might’ve been worth it had it not been for what she described as routine interruptions.
The real estate agent said she found relief from her internet woes in February, when she switched from Spectrum to Wisp — a Fountain Valley-based wireless internet and telephone service provider. Now, Saurastri said she pays about $50 a month for internet and a phone plan.
However, that may soon change for Saurastri and about 250 other Fountain Valley Wisp users following a recent City Council decision.
The council voted 3-0 Tuesday to revoke a Planning Commission decision to issue Wisp a conditional use permit and variance so its antenna could remain on the roof of the Rodecker building at 10175 Slater Ave.
Councilman Michael Vo abstained after unsuccessfully pushing to postpone the vote until after the city received additional guidance from the Federal Communications Commission and Councilman Patrick Harper abstained because he was on the Planning Commission when it granted the approvals for the tower.
Despite several pleas from residents who described Wisp’s services as beneficial to the community, Mayor Steve Nagel said allowing a business that didn’t initially follow city rules and regulations to proceed would set a bad precedent.
Fountain Valley’s investigation into the matter began in January 2018 with back-and-forth communication between city staff, a hired consultant and Wisp’s owner, David Rodecker, documents show. According to the city, Wisp operated without proper permits, installed an antenna beyond the maximum 50-foot height limit and didn’t conceal the antenna up to local standards.
“Once you’ve lost one to it, you’ve lost your control,” Nagel said in an interview Friday, adding that the council’s decision was an issue of compliance, not a judgment on Wisp’s value or quality of service.
City staff contends the antenna is 68 feet tall, while Rodecker says it’s 40.
Nagel said the city also received some complaints from residents who were opposed to Wisp’s antenna because they believed it would open the door for others to do the same thing. During the council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Cheryl Brothers said some residents feared Fountain Valley would become “a forest of these bare antennas.”
However, at the heart of the debate is whether Wisp is covered under the FCC’s Over-the-Air Reception Devices rule, which has been in effect since 1996 and “prohibits restrictions that impair the installation, maintenance or use of antennas used to receive video programming.”
This applies to video antennas, including direct-to-home satellite dishes, television antennas, wireless cable antennas and customer-end antennas that receive and transmit fixed wireless signals, according to the FCC.
While the tower and antennas were placed on Rodecker’s commercial property to receive data, which would make the facility compliant with the rule, the city believes the creation of Wisp to transmit signals to multiple customers removes those protections for the company, according to a staff report. City staff also pointed out that Wisp wasn’t licensed by the FCC.
When City Attorney Colin Burns asked Rodecker if Wisp’s antenna bounced signals to customers during Tuesday’s meeting, Rodecker couldn’t give a definite answer.
Rodecker views the issue differently. He offered Tuesday to pay city fines, fill out the necessary paperwork and conceal the antenna per city standards so long as Wisp could remain in operation, but the city didn’t take his offer.
“We have customer satisfaction,” Rodecker said in an interview. “Everyone has stayed on it” except for some who moved out of the city.
He said he provides Wisp’s services — which he described as an extension of Local Splash, an online marketing company he founded — for the benefit of residents.
Rodecker also has experienced the frustration of a spotty internet connection. It’s part of the reason he was inspired to create Wisp three years ago and sell wireless internet for work, streaming and gaming on multiple devices. In Rodecker’s mind, Wisp is akin to a hotspot where customers can connect to receive internet and phone services for about $50 a month. Businesses pay $150 a month and receive slightly different services on a different network.
Among Wisp’s clients are more than 200 Fountain Valley residents and several business including Silky Sullivan’s, an Irish-themed restaurant and pub. At one point there were plans to work with the city to provide Wi-Fi at a sports park, but those eventually fell through.
Wisp grew until the city began investigating, Rodecker said, adding that the drive to keep it afloat is for the benefit of residents, not money. He said he’s prepared to fight and believes the FCC might review and help.
“We’ve told our [customers] about this and the risk,” Rodecker said. “A year ago if we had this slap down, I don’t know what we would’ve done. The city has really brought us together.”
Nagel declined to comment Friday on whether the council’s vote compels Rodecker to remove the antenna or cease operating the company, saying he needs clarification from the city attorney.
Both understand this issue is far from resolved.
“If they want to go forward with something that would fit our building code and height requirements, I’m sure the city would be willing to meet and try to come to a workable decision for the business,” Nagel said. “I kind of felt like they were asking for forgiveness and would pay the fines and it’d be over. They need to comply with our rules.”