Mid-interview, Mark Steckel’s phone rings.
We’re at Indy Hall chatting about Steckel’s company, fixed wireless provider PhillyWisper, which has up until now remained very under-the-radar while deploying its service across parts of Philly to a few hundred customers.
Steckel apologizes and takes the call near a window overlooking Old City. It’s a customer, and he talks them through what seems to be an issue with their router. Currently, when a PhillyWisper client customer needs help, the line goes straight to Steckel’s cellphone.
“We’re trying to be a very different internet company than anybody is used to,” said Steckel, a Philly native who moved back to his home town in 2015, after alternating between New York, San Francisco and a stint in Hawaii. He’s worked for early stage startups running the tech side of the house, up until 2016 when he and partner John Falcone decided to enter the fixed wireless business.
“We want to provide a good service, with good speed and affordable price,” said Steckel. “People have a really adversarial relation with their ISPs and nobody likes that so we’re saying: let’s do this differently.”
But just what is fixed wireless? Let’s break it down: it’s basically an internet connection that requires two antennas to be precision-aimed at each other. For residential services, a small antenna is placed on the roof of the house or building, which is used to receive the connection from a primary connection point located in Center City. A wire goes from the antenna to the house which feeds into the WiFi router. That’s it.
The upside of fixed wireless, per Steckel, is faster deployment of stable, reliable connections that can scale to deliver gigabit speeds.
Right now, the service is available in a handful of Zip codes in town, mostly in the River Wards: think Northern Liberties and Fishtown but also Temple University from Broad Street heading east towards the Delaware River. Customers are currently “in the hundreds” and include Old City coworking hub Indy Hall and public access TV station PhillyCAM. Steckel and Falcone, a Wharton MBA and serial cofounder, aim to get that number up to 10,000 within the next couple of years.
(P.S. Indy Hall’s Alex Hillman wrote a bit of a love letter to PhillyWisper in 2016, when the company served as his home internet provider. They hadn’t yet expanded to Old City.)
Mind you, PhillyWisper isn’t alone in Philly’s fixed wireless space. There’s Little Rock, Arkansas-based Windstream, which rolled out a combination fixed wireless/wireline service in 2015, but it’s currently only available for businesses. Rhode Island-based Towerstream, also aimed at businesses, offers the service in Philly. In Delaware, WhyFly has been up and running since 2016 and has been vocal about its stance on net neutrality, an issue Steckel takes to heart.
“We are big fans of net neutrality,” the founder said. “It’s something I’ve been supporting since 2004, when I went to the Hawaii State House to lobby the legislators. “I’m incredibly disappointed by the FCC rollback. The only one it helps is these big companies.”
PhillyWisper currently operates as if net neutrality is the law of the land, and pledges not to sell user data.
By comparison, say, to Comcast’s user base of 2 million in the “Freedom Region” alone, PhillyWisper is a drop in the bucket. But even with its sights set on the 10,000 user mark, there’s a lot of work to be done.
“We want to grow as quick as possible while maintaining our standards in responsiveness, in customer service and reliability,” Steckel said of PhillyWisper, currently a team of three with plans to add staff in the coming months. “Part of that will be about scaling the company from a technology standpoint, part of that from a people and operations standpoint. It’s achievable.”-30-