Bamboowifi: The Gamble of Taking Back the Internet
In the age of constant connectivity, Philadelphia-based startup Bamboowifi is doing their part to provide consumer internet access, as they claim, “the right way.”
With eyes set on Northern Liberties and Fishtown (zip codes 19123 and 19125, respectively) as their pilot zone, co-owners and company founders James Gregory and David Platt are banking on what they consider two unshakable truths: our neighborhoods are an epicenter of small business in Philly, and millenials are profoundly unsatisfied with “head-honcho” providers like Comcast and Verizon.
The concept of Bamboowifi is a simple one— ditch the concept of a home internet connection based on “hardware,” like phone lines. Instead, local businesses and community centers will pay a one-time fee to become wireless access points with the incentive of kickbacks for making referrals to their customers. Younger generations, the company says, won’t miss the outdated services and will be grateful for the drop in monthly cost, which Bamboo currently projects at $30/month for 20mps down speed. Their laundry list of necessities features every talking point that a 25-year-old in Fishtown wants to hear: low-cost. Bundle-free. Net neutral. Customer-focused.
It might seem like an impossible task for the independent unknowns to one-up the looming behemoths of Comcast and Verizon but Bamboo certainly isn’t afraid to pull any punches when it comes to what the available providers lack.
“Comcast was voted the worst company in the country,” Gregory said. “We wouldn’t want to match the customer support of a larger corporation because their customer support is notoriously terrible…they are unwilling to update the way they do things, which is what provides us the opportunity to do it better.”
These are certainly strong words from a startup of only three employees but it seems that Bamboowifi has the technical background to stand behind those words. The “self-healing mesh” of multiple businesses-as-access-points will be far more reliable, according to the company. If one access point fails due to damage or bandwidth constraints, user traffic will naturally be able to migrate to another path — all while being monitored in real time from the Bamboo headquarters.
Even more encouraging is the transparency with which Platt and Gregory approach media outlets. Coming off of a fresh profile in the Philadelphia Business Insider, the pair was quick to share the details of their business plan with not only myself but every potential customer they hope to reign in.
Bamboowifi’s capability for a full system launch hinges on a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign— one with a goal of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. For those unfamiliar with the concept of Kickstarter, it’s an internet fundraising platform that allows people to set a minimum monetary amount. Anyone can contribute to the campaign with tiered donations that usually come equipped with various “perks” — in Bamboo’s case, the tiers are reflective of various service plans for both residents and businesses. If the campaign’s minimum goal is not met, the donations are refunded but many campaigns have successfully raised far more than the original baseline number.
Crowdfunding has had its fair share of detractors over the last several years (one might recall the bizarre scenario last summer in which a Columbus native raised over $55,000 to make a potato salad) but the Bamboo staff believe that the methodology is a perfect reflection of what they intend to do.
“We need a minimum amount of funding to build our pilot soon, and by extension, create proof of concept,” writes Gregory. “We want to connect directly to the people who want better internet service and give it to them. Kickstarter allows us to do that best.”
Post-campaign, the founders have their eyes set on a greater expanse of Philadelphia but with a carefully optimistic attitude.
“We do plan to spread citywide,” Gregory explains, “though areas like Center City present a challenge. The high rise buildings may make it difficult for our access points to communicate with each other.”
Bamboowifi is hardly the first attempt at bringing a wi-fi alternative to Philadelphia. An organization called “project.phree” has been in development since 2013 with the intent of bringing free internet access via a similar mesh network but an implied lack of funding and difficulty with high-rise architecture has led to a lack of concrete results. As far back as 2005, the New Millenium Research Council in Washington, D.C. has been actively discouraging the concept of municipal wi-fi networks (supported by public funds), which has made it difficult for any legislative motions to provide wi-fi alternatives to find success. Notions of “free wi-fi” don’t seem to concern the Bamboo team, who admit that bandwidth has an unavoidable cost — infrastructure. Whether you’re paying in taxes or in a standard plan, they argue, you’re still paying.
With a visionary team and technically sound battle plan, only time and proper funding will tell if Bamboowifi is truly the savior of Philadelphian internet. Fundraising is inherently a gamble, especially with a generation who isn’t often content to simply “wait and see” with crossed fingers. But they’re certainly doing their best to charm our skepticism away. Their website, at the moment, is pretty barren – just a teaser of what is to come – but still stated with unwavering confidence. “Cancel your cable,” it reads, “Cut your data plan. Keep your internet.”.
What more can we ask for?