Interesting topic on discontinued gear

So an interesting topic came up on Facebook tonight that got me to thinking. As WISPs grow and evolve, what are your thoughts on hoarding gear you have been using for years when it becomes discontinued? We will examine some ideas as to why this isn’t necessarily all a technical problem. It’s also a philosophical thing with the WISP owner/management.

First off let us examine the whys you would hoard equipment. One big reason is that you have a significant investment in the gear you are using.  This gear has been proven to work, and you have deployed large amounts of it. As a company grows, the ability to introduce new gear into things facing the customer becomes a slower process. To use the analogy, the larger the company grows, the slower the ship turns.

Another reason is the amount of capital needed to migrate to new gear.  Many times when a product line gets discontinued, there is no clear replacement for it. The Facebook post which brought up this post involved the Mikrotik NetMetal 9s.  These are now discontinued by Mikrotik and have no replacement.  If a WISP were to migrate to something else there would be a significant cost in new access points, but more costly, would-be customer CPE. “But just put up the new gear alongside the old and migrate customers over,” you say. This brings us to the next point.

Frequency plays a big role in any migration path. In a perfect world, everyone has open channels and there is no interference. However, that is hardly the case in many scenarios.  This scenario is especially true of 900mhz.  You only have 902-928 MHz to deal with in the US FCC realm.  At 20 MHz wide this is only one non-overlapping channel.   If you put up another access point on 900mhz on top of your existing you will be interfering with yourself. Besides, the frequency may be the reason you are able to reach customers.

Finally, the pros of hoarding equipment are the soft costs of upgrading. Training, engineering, customer service, and possible re-work of some installs can add to the overall cost.  Anyone who has had to change the pins on a reverse polarity Subscriber Module knows the pain I am talking about.

The Cons

The biggest trap I see operators fall into is they horde equipment and then forget about i.  They have spares on the shelves, and enough to service customers. They fool themselves into a false sense of security and kind of wait for something to fall into their laps.  Then, it seems all of a sudden, something happens, and they are scrambling for a solution.  Sometimes this is a software update current equipment gets, but the older stuff does not. This could be some critical security vulnerability or new code to interface with a new system.  Either way, this equipment is stranded on a software island.

Next up is hardware failure.  As equipment gets old it, is more prone to failure.  A WISP may find their reserves depleted after a weekend of storms or bad luck. What may have been plentiful supplies a month ago is now an issue.

Lastly, the performance of the equipment is a big issue.  In today’s bandwidth-hungry consumer ISP radios are needing to perform better and deliver more bandwidth to the customer. Sometimes a manufacturer discontinues a product because they see the limitations of the band or the equipment. Sometimes the manufacturer sees operators are moving on to other ways of doing things. This could be newer frequencies or data algorithms. Usually, it boils down to the equipment was too expensive to make or wasn’t selling well enough.

So whats a WISP to do?

The number one thing a WISP needs to do is not fall into a rut of doing the same old same old for too long when it comes to equipment.  What worked five years ago, may work okay today, but will it work two years from now? Always have a strategy to dump your equipment if need be for something better.  Whether that strategy makes business sense is a different question. Sometimes the approach is to have money in the bank for when the right equipment comes along. Until then, it’s business as usual. Don’t let yourself keep saying you will figure it out tomorrow.

I believe that WISPs should have three lines of thinking.

  1. What am I doing in the immediate future to run my business?
  2. What am I doing in the next 18 months to keep my business competitive?
  3. What am I doing in the next 24-36 months to grow and keep up with customer demand?

If you have strategies for each of these then hoarding equipment is no big deal.  You have plans in place. Just don’t let yourself fall into a false sense of security. Always be learning about new rules, technologies, equipment, and methods.  As your business grows you can delegate this to others, so you don’t have to be in the thick of it and can concentrate on your business.  If you are that “techie” who is doing all of this, keep an open mind.  Don’t be the typical I.T. guy stuck in your ways. None of this is saying hoarding discontinued gear is wrong, just have a strategy.

#packetsdownrange