An alternative internet service provider can be seen on the rooftops of the Douglas neighborhood

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Brad Loomis could be found installing internet service to a new customer. He’d already put in his usual shift that day at his restaurant, Station 702. 

Installing internet service is part of his latest business, Aeron Wireless. It’s a service that’s ideal for cord cutters — those who are cutting their expensive cable connections for other options. Usually, Loomis has an installer do that work. But he saves money when he has time and can do it himself. 

The restaurant at the intersection of three neighborhoods — Douglas, Northside, and Stuart — opened in the fall of 2014. “I was working full-time putting a restaurant together,” Loomis says. “And after the restaurant opened, I no longer had anything occupying the other half of my time,” he says with a laugh.

That gave Loomis the opportunity to delve into the issue of the lack of local competition among internet service providers and pursue his idea to provide internet connectivity to the neighborhood. At first, he investigated fiber optics options. “I ran into roadblock after roadblock, hurdle after hurdle, and I really became aware of how difficult it really is to get anywhere with fiber.”

Can we skip the fiber?

His breakthrough came when he learned about Wireless Internet Service Providers, better known as WISPs. “It's not very common in this area. But out West, it is extremely common and the reason why is there's not a lot of existing infrastructure out West. No telephone poles, no fiber running underground, or anything like that. And it occurred to me that by transmitting wirelessly I could avoid all the hurdles and roadblocks of right-of-way access, pole access, and so forth.”

He goes on to explain, “What I had to do was I had to purchase the resell rights from an upstream supplier. What that means is if you have internet service with somebody you can't just say, ‘Here, everybody. You can use this.’” Loomis laughs. “Somebody will get very mad about that. So I had to buy the rights along with a big enough — call it a pipe — to handle the amount of bandwidth to satisfy a certain number of users. So the initial upfront costs can be very heavy for me, which is a big reason that I'm in such a small geographic area.”

As he did his legwork two-and-a-half years ago he drove around studying the fiber optic that was already in place. “My wife hated that when I was driving my eyes weren't on the road.” The first step was learning how to distinguish fiber optic from other wires on utility poles, then look at the affixed tags to determine who owns what fiber optic. 

“That was the easy part. Then it's chasing down the owners of said fiber optic and seeing what kind of resale rights and bandwidth costs there are. And I just got extremely fortunate and lucky with the provider, the upstream provider, the partner that I have. They gave me a sweetheart deal. And their sweetheart deal has allowed me to offer a good deal to my customers, as well.”

He set the WISP up for six months at no cost for a number of neighbors in the Douglas neighborhood. That showed him what worked, and what didn’t. “Actually, the first six months went really well and then I started charging. And we've been doing that ever since.”

Instead of complicated packages, the service provides broadband speed in two tiers, 100 megabits per second, and 50 megabits per second.

Most of those connected to the internet through Aeron Wireless learned about it either by word-of-mouth or from the door hangers he has left up and down the streets. And before you get excited and give him a call asking for the connection, right now, service is available to a very tiny part of Kalamazoo -- 700 of the 900 homes in the Douglas neighborhood. His next move will be to provide service to the remaining 200 homes there. Loomis says he currently serves 4.5 percent of the 700 homes for which service is currently available.

Because he operates the small business by himself and he also has a restaurant to run, Loomis has kept it small by design. He currently is exploring expansion options, however.

“I chose the Douglas neighborhood because I was formerly a resident there and I know it well,” Loomis says. “I know all the streets, and some of the wireless challenges, such as hills and trees. The next areas I'm considering are the Northside, due to the proximity (to the Douglas neighborhood); Vine neighborhood, due to the demographics, mostly students who would be primarily cord cutters; and then the Edison neighborhood because I live there and it'd be nice not to have to pay the cable company,” he says with a laugh. “But also my neighbors are likeminded and they would also like to have a locally owned internet provider, especially if it's right next door to them.”

What exactly is a WISP?

WISPs use fixed wireless broadband technology to deliver the same high speeds and service of traditional broadband providers but it is delivered wirelessly as opposed to through buried cables. “So when people hear of wireless internet connectivity, they have perceptions of, ‘Oh, it's like my mobile data on my cell phone’ or, ‘Oh, it's wi-fi.’” It’s not either of those.

The technical term is a fixed wireless internet service. It transmits from a terrestrial tower to an antenna on your roof. “What this does is allows us to control both ends of the equation. So I can place your rooftop antenna in the ideal spot (to receive the transmissions) and then we use a wire to bring it into your house. And the managed wi-fi router is the device that then takes the internet off of the wire that was brought in to your house and allows you to use your devices.”

Because this is internet service only it’s best for those on internet-use extremes — heavy and light users. Heavy internet users who want the most for the least amount of money, such a gamers, and light internet users who are paying too much for their internet service for the amount of time they use it, such as those who need only basic email and some browsing. 

“People that are interested in traditional cable packages, or landlines, or things like that won't benefit from using this kind of service. Now, that's not to say that it can't be done. That's just not what I'm looking to provide. 

“I'm not looking to provide for everybody,” he continues. “I'm just looking to be the alternative. And I know there's a lot of people that still need to have their pay TV or their landlines. That's perfectly acceptable.”

By providing only internet service he also avoids the legal and regulatory minefields that come with offering television and telephone service. He also wants potential customers to know that he does not store any data beyond your address and IP address, which he has a legal requirement to keep.

Another service that Aeron Wireless provides (“since we’re already on your roof”) is placing a TV antenna so you can pick up the local television channels. “And we'll do that for the cost of the television antenna,” Loomis says.

As might be expected with an internet service provider, after installation all customer contact is done online. To ask for tech support customers can text or email the company a support ticket. Payments also are all done online. “It’s another way to reduce the cost of providing our services,” Loomis says.

He has been able to keep overhead costs primarily limited to the cost of resell rights and the bandwidth provided to customers.

Food service to internet service

If going from creating omelets, pancakes, and sandwiches to connecting a neighborhood to the internet seems like an unlikely combination for all-in-a-day’s work consider that in high school, in a pre-internet era, Loomis became certified as a computer network engineer and thought he was going work with computers throughout his life. He also had a job as a dishwasher when he was 16 that continued through high school.

During his senior year the idea of looking at a computer screen all day had lost its appeal. “Which is hilarious because that's what I do anyway.” He came to Western Michigan University and majored in sociology. “I was going to save the world. And I still have a little bit of that ambition.” Until he learned he needed a Master’s degree to move ahead in sociology.

“Then I was going to college. I was still working in restaurants. And I was getting promotions. I became a restaurant manager, decided to switch my major (from social work). That's when I decided I wanted to be a restaurant owner.” Loomis went on to get 14 years experience in food service, including experience at Stryker World Headquarters, Kalamazoo College, Zoetis, Pfizer, and Kellogg. He also served as chef for Kalamazoo Valley Community College and worked at Creative Dining Services before opening the neighborhood restaurant.

“I kind of lost focus on the whole internet activity, that aspect of it for a very long time.”

When Loomis was in high school, his computer teacher was convinced that transmitting data over wireless networks would be the future. 

“I was not having it,” Loomis says. “I wasn't interested. I thought everything was going to be wires, fiber optics, and I was extremely wrong.” He laughs. “And I completely flipped and have done a 180.”

And in that flip, a business that may be riding the wave of the future of the internet is growing in Kalamazoo.  

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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