With all of the noise around 5G, it's easy to forget that Google's Alphabet purchased a fixed wireless provider in 2016 that operates a model that's very similar to Verizon's new 5G Home service.
Thus, here at the beginning of 2019, and in light of Google Fiber's recent travails, it's reasonable to ask: Whatever happened to Google's Webpass?
"We're still excited about fixed wireless," said Brien Bell, the chief executive of Google's Webpass business. "We're investing in continued growth."
Bell said that Webpass now offers Internet services to a total of 10,000 residential and consumer "units" in its two newest markets, Denver and Seattle, which the company entered in 2017. In Webpass parlance, "units" are the apartments, offices and other dwellings that the company targets as it works to blast wireless Internet services to big buildings like apartment complexes and office buildings.
"We're excited about the technology and the model," Bell said. Webpass operates in a total of seven US cities. "It is a model that can scale pretty quickly."
Bell paints a bright picture of an operation inside Alphabet's sprawling online business that has fallen on hard times. Alphabet acquired Webpass at the height of its Google Fiber push, and many in the industry expected the company to leverage Webpass's wireless Internet technology to expand the reach of its Google Fiber service. However, that hasn't really played out, considering Alphabet's management decided to scale back the company's fiber-buildout efforts, a move that coincided with the departure of Craig Barratt, CEO of Alphabet's Access, along with several other executives in the company's "Access" division.
After the culling, Alphabet installed Dinni Jain as CEO of Access CEO in February 2018. Jain reports to Alphabet's leadership team (Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Ruth Porat) and now oversees both Google Fiber and Webpass
Bell took over leadership of Webpass at the end of 2017, shortly before Jain took charge. Interestingly, Bell initially joined Google five years ago as one of the company's lawyers working with the FCC. He moved to the business side of the company in 2015 to help Google Fiber negotiate terms with city governments.
One of Bell's first major actions as Webpass's CEO was to leave Boston, which the company did last year. "We determined that exiting the Boston market was the right decision," he said, though he declined to outline the reasons for the action. "It was really a combination of factors rather than one specific thing."
Now Bell said Alphabet is working to evaluate exactly how it will move forward in both its fixed wireless business and its fiber business. He wouldn't offer any hints about what 2019 holds other than to say that "one of the reasons we've been careful and deliberate with what we've been doing at Webpass is that we want to be tied to the right overall strategy."
"We're seeing really great customer reaction to our products and services," he said. "The demand for high-quality Internet is not slowing down."
Alphabet's 2019 plans for Webpass are worth looking at now considering several new players are entering roughly the same market with the same basic technology. Verizon, of course, launched its own fixed wireless service, 5G Home, last year in parts of four cities, and has said it will expand the offering to more areas in the second half of this year. And startup Starry has major fixed wireless growth plans this year after having raised $100 million in venture capital to expand its service into almost 20 major US markets including Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, DC.
While Starry and Verizon 5G Home do use fixed wireless technology to deliver Internet services to homes and offices, they're not quite using the same model as Webpass. As Bell explained, Webpass uses a mix of fixed wireless technology and wires to sell its Internet services. The company deals directly with building owners and real estate managers. Once an agreement is signed, the company installs a base station on the roof of a customer's building that can connect with a nearby tower. Internet connections are wirelessly beamed to the building's base station using 70GHz to 80GHz E Band spectrum and then routed to actual homes and offices inside the building via an Ethernet network in the building. Bell declined to name Webpass's equipment suppliers.
Bell said Webpass could provide speeds from 1Gbit/s to 10Gbit/s through the offering, at least in its newest buildings, and sets prices for users at $60 per month. He said the company, like Google Fiber, doesn't charge customers based on the speeds they receive but provides them with the fastest connection the company can. Bell added though that sometimes the cost for the service is bundled into the company's deal with the building owner, meaning that residents don't pay a monthly fee to Webpass.
Thus, Webpass's approach to the market is slightly different when compared with both Verizon and Starry's efforts, considering those companies use different spectrum bands and often take their services directly to end users rather than just building owners.
Webpass was a longtime player in the fixed wireless space before Google's acquisition of the company, and as a result, Webpass has no real 5G story to tell, even though fixed wireless access (FWA) is one of the initial use cases for 5G. "5G is obviously the most visible and talked-about area of innovation" in wireless, Bell said. "It's an area that we're watching."
But he said the company is not using 5G technology and he wouldn't speculate if the company would do so in the future.