Out of Akron

By Gerry Blackwell

October 17, 2002

Ohio-based NeTeam builds on its Telxon Aeronet heritage to offer expert WLAN consulting services.

In our continuing search for signs of network intelligence in the wireless LAN industry, we went to Akron, Ohio, home of NeTeam Corp., a ten-year-old WLAN consulting firm with a solid pedigree.

Why Akron, the rust-belt town south of Cleveland? Because that's where co-founder and chief technology officer Jim Portaro and some of his colleagues have lived since they worked for Telxon the WLAN pioneer acquired by Symbol Technologies in 2000.

Telxon developed the original pre-standard Aeronet technology which Cisco acquired before the Symbol take-over. Cisco, of course, has since built Aeronet into one of the most respected brands in the industry.

Portaro, a mechanical engineer by training, but with a track record of over 20 years in the RF industry, was senior director of network operations at Telxon, in charge of integration, implementation and engineering work for the company's enterprise clients.

"When we started as NeTeam," Portaro says, "the idea was to be the best at the [wireless network] design piece and also at managing the implementation of enterprise solutions."

NeTeam has stuck pretty much to that basic plan and had considerable success with it. Despite cyclical economy-related ups and downs, the firm has doubled revenues every year, Portaro says.

Today NeTeam employs about 80 people, 20 of them consultants -- many with Telxon/Aeronet backgrounds. There are also tech support people, implementation specialists and engineers in NeTeam's development shop, which works on, among other things, antenna designs with vendor partners Maxrad and Centurion Wireless Technologies, and alpha and beta product testing for an A-list of hardware partners. Inside sales and administration staff make up the rest.

NeTeam has offices in Atlanta, South Florida, New Hampshire and Rochester, NY, -- and one opening soon in San Francisco. Most of its business has been in the U.S., but the firm has also done network design work for U.S.-based clients in Europe. It's working on a new initiative that Portaro won't talk about but says will open up a more global market.

The customer list now runs to over 1,500, mostly enterprises and institutions, but also the odd carrier and ISP. NeTeam has mainly concentrated on a handful of verticals -- education, health, financial and, surprisingly, cruise lines.

Significant clients include the University of Akron, for which NeTeam designed and built one of the first and largest campus-wide 802.11b networks. The firm is big on Wall Street. It designed WLANs for the New York Stock Exchange, the New York Mercantile Exchange, the New York Board of Trade, and the New York headquarters of brokerage firm Bear, Stearns & Co.

NeTeam has also worked with hospitality industry point of sale (POS) software developer InfoGenesis on innovative wireless LANs that allow wait staff on Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Carnival Cruise Lines ships to take orders and accept credit card payment on handheld wireless devices.

The firm's list of vendor partners reads like a Who's Who of the industry -- Cisco, 3Com , Alvarion , Proxim , Avaya , SpectraLink , etc. While NeTeam does resell product for some of its partners, Portaro downplays this aspect of the business and claims the firm is ultimately vendor neutral.

"We are not concentrating on reselling hardware," he says. "We have to do it in some instances, but it's not our forte. Our forte is consulting with customers, helping them resolve problems with something they already have, helping them choose vendors, and designing robust wireless LAN systems for them."

The company's heaviest emphasis remains on design work. NeTeam can and will do implementation but it's not "a cable company," as Portaro puts it. The Manhattan clients were all constrained by union agreements to use local installers, and some clients -- the hospitals especially -- want to do their own implementation to save money.

"If they want to do the implementation," Portaro explains, "we'll design it for them, they can implement to our specifications and then we'll go back in and check and certify what they've installed." NeTeam also trains installers.

While the core of the firm's practice is wireless LAN work for enterprises and institutions, it often builds point-to-point bridges for clients as well, especially the hospitals and colleges. One of its vendor partners is LightPointe, maker of leading-edge free space optical (FSO) equipment for short-range, very-high-speed building-to-building connections.

NeTeam is also pushing the technology envelope in other areas. A recent focus has been voice over WLAN, primarily with partner SpectraLink, and video over WLAN. The firm has been working with video conferencing equipment vendors like Tandberg and Polycom to integrate wireless functionality into video conferencing networks.

Portaro claims the firm's only real competition are the local network integrators and equipment VARs with which prospective clients already have relationships. Even they are not really competitors, he says. "We'll work with companies that may on the onset look like competitors because we're so highly specialized [in the design component.]"

He professes never to have encountered Signa Services, a similar consulting firm we previously profiled in this occasional series on WLAN helper companies. (Signa, interestingly, dismisses NeTeam as a "smaller, regional player.")

If NeTeam does have to compete for the design work it covets, it has much to recommend it, Portaro claims. "Not only do we have a deep understanding of wireless networks, but it goes a long way back -- almost 20 years," he notes.

"We're a voting member of 802.11 committees -- primarily [802.11]g, but we're also in close contact with [802.11]i. We do alpha and beta testing for many hardware vendors. Our development team has written some of our own software. We work closely with antenna manufacturers. It's a combination of these things that ensures a really strong outcome for our clients."

Portaro doesn't see any slow-down in the WLAN industry. The establishment of solid standards, not just for radios but for WLAN security, is making wireless more widely accepted, he says. The addition of mobility to 802.11's bag of tricks and the fact that 802.11 radios are coming down in price to the commodity level and being built into all kinds of devices are also factors.

"The world of wireless is continually expanding," Portaro says.

The only blip on the horizon is the confusion in the marketplace caused by the introduction of and hype around 802.11a . It may be slowing adoption in some cases, he says. Too many users see 802.11a as a wholesale replacement for 802.11b, but the propagation characteristics of current 5.2 GHz 802.11a equipment means 802.11a is not as well suited to inbuilding networking.

"The [wall] penetrating power of [802.11]a is horrible compared with [802.11]b," Portaro says. "There are a lot of misconceptions out there, confusing the market -- that all they have to do is get [802.11]a and they'll have 54 Mbps, then next it will be 100 Mbps. They don't realize that physics comes into play here. We advise people on the real differences."

He believes 802.11a will find a role in applications where high-speed connectivity is required but there is potential for interference with existing nearby 2.4 GHz networks.

The real "big bang" in high-speed WLANs will come when 802.11g, which promises 54-Mbps theoretical throughput using 2.4GHz spectrum and is backward compatible with 802.11b, is ratified sometime next year.

"'G'," says Portaro, "can't happen soon enough."

802.11 Planet Conference Need to set up your own wireless LAN? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our workshops will be a Wireless LAN Design Seminar.

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