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WeLink raises $185M to deliver high-bandwidth wireless internet to the home using 5G

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Cable or fiber. For the vast majority of American homes, there’s no choice of how customers get their internet access. If you’re lucky to live in some dense urban areas with amenable landlords, that ‘or’ might become an ‘and.’ Yet, as more and more people rely on the internet for more than just cat photos (and after recent events, maybe rely on cat photos as well for sustenance), it seems obvious the market needs more choice and competition.

Utah-based WeLink wants to be that alternative. Taking advantage of advances in 5G in the millimeter spectrum as well as rapidly declining hardware costs, the startup is pioneering a mesh network of wireless base stations that can transmit high-bandwidth signals across entire neighborhoods at relatively cheap infrastructure installation costs.

It’s a paradigm that caught the eye of investors, with Digital Alpha Advisors, a long-time telecom VC with close ties to Cisco, investing $185 million into the company in equity as well as a debt facility in exchange for revenue share (sort of the hardware version of SaaS securitization). It dubbed the latter an “outcome-based financial structure.” Rick Shrotri and Neil Sheridan from Digital Alpha will join WeLink’s board.

The startup was founded by CEO Kevin Ross and CTO Ahsan Naim in 2018. Ross had been interested in wireless internet since 2005, but the technology was early — and very expensive. “I was twenty years ahead of my time or [maybe] fifteen years, and so it was an exercise in frustration waiting for the technology to actually commercialize,” Ross said. He built one company in the space, eventually selling it to Vivint, a smart home company that was owned by Blackstone and which went through a reverse merger with a SoftBank unit last year for $6.5 billion. The buyer at Vivint was Luke Langford, who left to work on another startup called Lucid Software before joining WeLink more recently as president and COO.

WeLink’s executives: co-founder and CEO Kevin Ross and COO and President Luke Langford. Photos via WeLink.

Now, wireless internet has been a story many of us have followed for more than a decade, with few notable success stories. Ross is convinced though that the combination of reliable millimeter-wave 5G (at around 60-70 Ghz) plus dramatically cheaper hardware costs has finally opened the door to high-quality wireless internet for the first time. (It’s probably good to note that TechCrunch is editorially independent from our ultimate parent company Verizon, which obviously has a fiber customer or two).

WeLink’s technology uses a mesh architecture, which means that signals can be bounced between different base stations as necessary throughout a neighborhood in order to reach a “point of presence” station with a fiber connection. For the typical single-family home installation, a small base station (Ross says about four inches by four inches) is installed on the roof “similar to a satellite dish” and a single cable is run down to connect to the home’s router or Wi-Fi station.

WeLink’s base station on a home roof. Photo via WeLink.

Ross says that WeLink doesn’t need a lot of density to reach ubiquity. “We don’t need much — a couple of percentage points in a neighborhood of take rate … and that actually ends up giving us blanket coverage. What happens is we will typically get north of 5% very quickly.” Once a neighborhood has an ever higher rate of, say, 10%, “ There’s so much redundancy there,” Ross said. The company says it offers “Up to 940 Mbps Download/Upload,” although of course, your mileage will vary in reality. That bandwidth is symmetrical unlike cable internet, which should be good for video broadcasting and large file uploads in this remote-work world.

He also noted that the company doesn’t need a lot of approvals from cities in order to launch, which has historically been a large barrier to new internet connectivity startups. “There’s no permitting required other than at our fiber points of presence where we’re broadcasting from, but those are minimal.”

WeLink’s first launch neighborhoods are in Henderson, Nevada outside Las Vegas, and the company is expanding into Arizona with installations in Tucson and Phoenix. The company intends to expand to ten markets in the coming years. Ideal markets tend to be suburban neighborhoods and subdivisions where there is enough density to make the mesh network work but with a built environment that doesn’t prevent line-of-sight between antennas. “We’re kind of primarily focused on bedroom communities, the doughnut around the urban core in big cities,” Ross said.

WeLink’s marketing concept art on how its base stations connect with each other in a neighborhood. Photo via WeLink.

Pricing is $80 per month on a month-to-month plan, and $70 per month with a two-year contract. After two years, the price drops $10 per month in what Ross described as a “loyalty discount.”

On the investment side, Langford the COO noted Digital Alpha Advisors’ Cisco connections as a key consideration for the company. “There is an affiliation with Cisco, and being an internet service provider, it’s nice to be able to punch above our own weight as a startup and still have dialogue with the leaders in networking technology so certainly that was something that was attractive to us,” he said. “They were comfortable with a business that has atoms, not just bits.” As for the debt model, Langford said that “There’s some advantages to not having as much dilution … but also have capital to make sure that we can go add customers.“

Obviously there are other internet wireless startups out there, the most prominent these days given its backer being satellite-based ISP Starlink. Ross noted that he doesn’t really see the company as a competitor, since WeLink’s bandwidth is significantly higher and more reliable given its 5G mesh architecture. He sees Starlink competing much more heavily for the rural market, where many other internet connectivity technologies like cable and fiber are less viable.

It’s a lot of venture money, a serious bet in the 5G space, and hopefully for families fighting on Zoom for pixels, an opportunity to get more competition for high-bandwidth internet.

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Scalapay raises $48M to scale its buy now, pay later service in Europe

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Buy now, pay later services — which let consumers finance the purchase of goods online by paying back the total in installments over time — have been growing in ubiquity this past year. Today, Scalapay, one of the companies that’s building a platform to enable buy now, pay later (BNPL) and related features, has raised a round to boost its position in the race for customers against competitors like Klarna, Afterpay and Affirm.

The Milan, Italy-based startup has picked up $48 million in funding, money that it will use to continue building the tech in its platform, scaling its service in Europe, and to begin working on efforts to break into the U.S.

The round was led by Fasanara Capital and also included Baleen Capital and Italian family office Ithaca Investments. This is the startup’s first significant funding since launching in 2019.

Scalapay’s service is based around a basic model involving a quick sign-up, and then an agreement to repay the full amount in three equal installments, debited from your bank account or a credit card.

Like others such as Affirm, Scalapay does not charge consumers interest or other fees: its business model is based around taking a commission from the merchants on each transaction, the argument being that offering an easy and quick BNPL service will increase conversions and shopping cart size.

The startup currently has around 1,000 merchants in Europe using its service in France, Italy and Germany, including well-known, mulitnational European retailers like Decathlon, Calzedonia, Bata, Aosom and Bricobravo. It claims to be the biggest provider of BNPL services in its home country.

It also inked a recent partnership with banking “marketplace” Raisin Bank, and through that, Scalapay will soon be able to offer its merchant customers the ability to offer BNPL services in any European country.

The plan will be to add on more originating countries, said CEO and co-founder Simone Mancini, as well as related payment features in areas like customer acquisition, conversion, retention and the back office tasks associated with taking and fulfilling and order.

For a start, on its own site, Scalapay lists merchants that offer its BNPL service, and the startup has found that these links are on average generating 1 million referrals each month. Mancini said the company is working on a way of building a product around this concept as part of its expansion.

There was a time when it was not that common to find installment-based payment options on sites, with BNPL a carryover from the world of brick and mortar where people might have in the past paid for items using layaway or other in-store finance options, in particular for more expensive items like televisions.

But the traction of older online services like privately-held Klarna (valued now at over $10 billion), as well as Affirm in the U.S. and Afterpay in Australia (both of which are publicly traded), have paved the way for more recent entrants like Scalapay (which was founded in 2019) and other newer players like Alma.

All of them have in part been lifted by the conditions that we are living under at the moment.

E-commerce usage has seen a huge surge of activity due to people staying away from physical stores (when those stores are even open) to help with social distancing. But at the same time, many consumers are in less financial stable situations as a result of the pandemic, so options to help them stretch out payments and remain more flexible with their money have grown in appeal.

This has also meant that the average price of the kinds of items that people are buying on installments is also changing. Mancini said the average sum people are paying on Scalapay currently is around €100. That underscores the value that people are not willing to pay up front, so from a microeconomics perspective it will be interesting to see how that figure rises or falls in the future.

The fact that the sums are not particularly high right now, meanwhile, might be one reason why Scalapay has seen some strong numbers in terms of defaults and approvals. Mancini said that “first purchase approval rates” are about 93% right now, higher or lower depending on the category. And its default rate is below 1.5%.

These are not bad, but also not markedly different from its competitors.

Going forward, the big challenges for a company like Scalapay, therefore, will not just the usual ones of building solid algorithms to ensure that they are not financing people who are likely to default on payments, making sure its system stays fraud-free, and so on. They will also include finding a way to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack of companies providing the same kinds of basic services.

Perhaps a small detail, but it’s notable to me that Scalapay’s site doesn’t look unlike Klarna’s. Both even lean heavily on pink as a color theme.

It’s also worth mentioning that Mancini moved to Italy from Australia (where his co-founder Johnny Mitrevski still lives and runs R&D) to start Scalapay because Australia, he said, was going to be too hard to break into because of the dominance of Afterpay.

“Australia is one of the most competitive markets, versus Italy being one of the most underdeveloped markets,” he said. “It was an easy pick, with heaps of opportunity here for BNPL.” The company’s focus on building more beyond basic BNPL should also help with building a profile and diversifying the business.

“I was impressed with the fast growth of the company and the underlying model,” said Francesco Filia, CEO of Fasanara Capital, in a statement. “They have shown resilience during a difficult period and I’m excited by where the company is headed.”

“Scalapay’s platform delights customers while driving dramatic results for merchants,” added Fang Li, Managing Partner of Baleen Capital, in a statement. “As a long-time investor in the BNPL industry, I have been beyond impressed by Scalapay’s team, execution, and product vision. I believe the company is on the way to building a valued and leading partner for European retailers.”

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UCLA is building a digital archive of mass incarceration with a new $3.6M grant

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UCLA researchers have been awarded a $3.65 million grant to collect, contextualize, and digitally preserve a huge archive of materials relating to policing and mass incarceration. It should help historians and anthropologists, but more fundamentally it will thoroughly document a period that many would rather forget.

The “Archiving the Age of Mass incarceration” effort is being led by Kelly Lytle Hernandez, director of the university’s Bunche Center for African American Studies and creator of Million Dollar Hoods, another project documenting the human cost of incarceration in Los Angeles. The grant is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“We may be at a turning point in American history — may be building something new,” Lytle Hernandez told me, citing a tumultuous but potentially transformative 2020. “If that’s the case we want to make sure we are preserving the record of what happened. What we want to do is retain the records, the memory, the experiences of people affected by mass incarceration, and where possible the records of the state, which would otherwise be destroyed.”

The core of this collection will be a cache of documents released to Lytle Hernandez by the LAPD as part of this 2019 settlement (shortly after she won a MacArthur fellowship) regarding public disclosures and communication. She described it as around 177 boxes of paper records from the 1980s to the early 2000s detailing the “war on drugs,” policing immigrants, and many other topics, with more to be provided later under an agreement with the department.

The idea would be to “counterbalance” these official documents, as she put it, with documentation and testimony from the other side of the equation.

“People who are disproportionately incarcerated or arrested — we often lose our records because we get evicted; because where we stored our records, we can’t make the payments and they’re seized; they’re seized when we’re arrested, etc.,” she explained. “If we need to undo generations of harm, we need to know, where did that harm happen? Who did it happen to? I see this archival project as part of that dismantlement effort.”

Over the next few years Lytle Hernandez will lead the effort to assemble the archive, which will involve such traditional work as scanning and indexing paper documents, but also visiting communities and collecting “carceral ephemera” such as receipts for bail bonds (which may be the only surviving record of a person’s brush with the justice system) and personal stories and media.

Getting records from police and state agencies is a difficult and sometimes legally or politically fraught process. It’s important to get as much information as possible, from as many sources as possible, as quickly as possible, she said. Other major turning points in the history of racial justice have been inadequately documented, for reasons both negligent and deliberate.

“What if the nation had sent out squads of oral historians and students to capture and preserve the record? Imagine what we could know about enslavement and its toll on all of us, what it meant to the making of this country, if we had talked to the people who had experienced it — what kind of archive that would have left us, to grapple with and to help us move away from its legacies,” said Lytle Hernandez. “But we’ve been able to forget the power and legacy of slavery because we didn’t do a good enough job. Same with native removal, internment, immigration.”

Now there is an opportunity — around the country, she was careful to point out, not just in LA — to do just that with the era of mass incarceration. Not only that but they can bring modern techniques to bear in ways that weren’t possible during, say, the Civil Rights movement.

Her experience with Million Dollar Hood has shown her that there is serious interest in turning the tables among communities that have historically been disenfranchised or targeted by racist and classist policies propped up by bogus data.

“When we have a meeting we have black and brown students crammed into the room and out into the hall to learn data analysis and data science,” she said. “Part of the project is opening up that door. When you bring the people into the room who are the most impacted, they see that data differently — they see different stories.”

The archive will be completely public, though the exact scope of what documents will be included and how they will be sorted, described, and so on is still being worked out. Regardless of the exact details, the archive should prove invaluable to students, researchers, and a curious public over the coming decades as the changes Lytle Hernandez hopes for begin to get underway.

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Qualtrics prices IPO at $30 per share, above its upgraded target range

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Last night, Qualtrics priced its IPO at $30 per share, selling 50.4 million shares in the process.

Notably, the company’s IPO price was harder to chase down than usual, with a formal press release in scarce supply. SEC filings indicate that the company “anticipate[s]” a price of $30 per share, and reports from media and IPO-watching entities cite the $30 figure as well.

TechCrunch has an email into the Qualtrics team asking to confirm the reports, which are sufficiently widespread and confident that we’re similarly comfortable with its final price.

At $30 per share, Qualtrics priced its IPO at $1 per share above its raised IPO range of $27 to $29 a share. TechCrunch anticipated that the company’s first IPO price interval was low; and this publication noted that we would not “fall over in shock if Qualtrics priced a dollar or two above [its] raised range.”

Quelle surprise.

At $30 per share, and with 511,138,997 shares outstanding after its debut per its most recent S-1/A, inclusive of its underwriters’ option, Qualtrics would be worth $15.3 billion. That’s just under double the $8 billion that the company was worth when it sold to SAP a few years ago. Of course, let’s wait until we get a formal, final share count before we lock in the company’s pre-trading value.

For SAP, then, the deal is a win. But it’s not alone in enjoying quick returns on Qualtrics. Silver Lake agreed to buy “15,018,484 shares at $21.64 per share” and “225 million of shares at the initial public offering price” back in December. So that means that the company has a paper gain of more than $125 million on the shares it bought for just under $22 apiece.

Not a bad trade. If Qualtrics’ gains in early trading, Silver Lake will do even better.

TechCrunch is talking to the company later today, and will have more notes on its performance and valuation when it begins to trade.

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