Broadband services

Common Networks tangles with Comcast in California

Common Networks doesn't deliver ubiquitous coverage in the Bay Area, but the wireless broadband ISP is looking to apply some pricing pressure and competitive headaches for Comcast and other incumbents in pockets of the market where it does provide service.

And Common's no-contract service just got a bit faster as it taps into unlicensed spectrum in the 60GHz band.

Following earlier 20 Mbit/s and 80 Mbit/s service options that respectively fetch $34 and $39 per month and use 5GHz spectrum, Common Networks recently launched a new symmetrical, uncapped 300 Mbit/s tier for $49 per month that rides on millimeter-wave spectrum. By comparison, Comcast's 250 Mbit/s (downstream) broadband tier in the Bay Area reportedly runs $69.99 per month for the first 12 months of service.

Common Networks, which pairs the service with free installation, says has extended coverage to about 100,000 users across parts of the Bay Area in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Jose and Sunnyvale.

Common Networks declined to disclose a current subscriber count, but its primary target is single-family homes. It's also pursuing opportunities with apartments and other types of multiple dwelling units.

Dual-Purpose Hardware
Common Networks' equipment is both the CPE device and a service relay that connects to other homes in the neighborhood.
Common Networks' equipment is both the CPE device and a service relay that connects to other homes in the neighborhood.

"Single-family homes are really our bread and butter," company founder and CEO Zach Brock said, noting that Common Networks has had success winning former cable broadband customers as well as those who were on sub-par DSL networks.

Rather than erecting massive towers to deliver service, Common Networks uses a distributed network where the equipment installed at each home serves as both the consumer premises equipment and a service relay that supports other nearby homes. The network's "viewshed" (the geographical area visible from a certain location) is expanded as new homes and customers are brought online, Brock explained.

Backed by fiber POPs that feed the wireless network, the equipment at each home installation packs in two to four point-to-point radios and requires only a single 110-volt outlet for power. A cable carrying power and data is then run into the home. Customers then use their own WiFi access points/routers, or one from the company, to attach to the service.

Common Networks manages and orchestrates the CPE/relay equipment through its distributed software platform. "We look at a much more moderate amount of equipment on every customer roof, and stitch them together to provide Internet [service]," Brock said.

That also means that the network is not dependent on any one single site staying online. "We can provide a higher level of service to all customers despite the chaos inherent in distributed systems," he said.

Cutting costs
Common Networks doesn't break out its specific home passed network costs but estimates that it's about 1/50th of fiber. He said the cost-to-connect is comparable to fiber but notes that this is success-based capital.

"As the network grows and we extend our range, we don't have to put down tens or hundreds of millions of dollars before we have that first customer signed up," he added.

Brock said the use of unlicensed spectrum also allows Common Networks to tap into an existing device and hardware ecosystem and keep costs under control.

Regarding the startup's use of millimeter wave spectrum, Common Networks purchased Facebook's 60GHz Terragraph gear earlier this year. At the time, the company said it had about 1,000 customers.

"The big advantage of [the use of unlicensed technology] is, radios and equipment come out of supply chains that are pretty deep and relatively inexpensive," Brock said, noting that Common Networks isn't implementing carrier aggregation techniques to combine its access to 5GHz and 60GHz.

However, it does lean on the 60GHz band to deliver its new 300 Mbit/s service. And that comes with the special set of challenges -- namely range and accessibility -- that comes with the territory with respect to millimeter-wave spectrum.

"It requires pure line of sight; you can't cheat on that," Brock said. "But that's a constraint that we've designed to the whole system around."

Common Networks, which employs about 75 people and based in San Francisco, has gotten this far by raising $34 million from backers that include General Catalyst, Eclipse Ventures, and Lux Capital.

"We are always evaluating options for fundraising," he said. "We've definitely seen some inbound interest from other folks, but we're not currently fundraising at this time."

To market the service, Common Networks isn't spending heavily on cross-market TV and radio spots, but instead spreading the word at the local, grassroots level by getting involved in area organizations and community groups, and backing that with some online/digital marketing.

While Starry, Google Fiber/Webpass and others fixed wireless broadband specialists continue to reach into new cities and target MDUs, Common Networks is being coy about any plans to break out of the Bay Area and continue its pursuit of the single-family home broadband market. "Stay tuned," Brock said when asked about his company's market expansion plans.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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