The Big Event (Bandwidth)

By Gerry Blackwell

December 05, 2002

How WISPs can earn extra cash and get their name in lights by offering 'event bandwidth.'

It was late in the 2002 Major League Baseball playoffs when management at Edison International Field, home of the then-soon-to-be World Series champion Anaheim Angels, realized they had a situation on their hands.

With the Angels looking like they might actually be headed to the final, the IT department was faced with a scary prospect. The media center could soon be inundated with bandwidth-hungry digital journalists. The center at that point had two puny DSL connections to share among the anticipated throng of scribes and shutterbugs.

What to do?

Luckily, a casual encounter put Edison Field's IT director in touch with innovative Orange County WISP NextWeb, which offers a unique Event Bandwidth service. With only days of notification, NextWeb was able to provision a dedicated 4-Mbps wireless link to the Angels' media center from an existing nearby 5.8-GHz U-NII-band POP.

Event Bandwidth is a neat, attention-grabbing side business for NextWeb -- and could be, perhaps, for other WISPs as well.

"It's obviously not our core focus," says David Williams, the company's vice president of marketing and business development. "But it does make us money, and it's very unique in the marketplace. It also gives us additional marketing benefits -- because people talk about it. It helps us get our name out there."

The journalists -- especially the photojournalists -- at the World Series certainly talked about it. They were ecstatic. The NextWeb service meant they always had access to a high-speed Internet connection to file their stories and multi-megabyte digital photos.

In big-league sports reporting, speed is often of the essence. Working with different time zones frequently makes for very tight deadlines for newspaper print reporters. Some stories and photos are destined to be posted to Web sites within hours or even minutes of being filed.

"The bandwidth performance of our service really benefited the photo journalists in particular," Williams says. "They needed to get their high-res images quickly back to their offices where they could be cropped or resized before going out to various locations."

The Associated Press (AP) wire service established its own dedicated ISDN lines at Edison Field, at considerable expense, Williams notes. The AP reporters ended up being jealous of the rest of the pack who had considerably faster Internet access.

The journalists also couldn't help noticing that there was no high-speed access at Pacific Bell Park, home of the Angels' World Series opponents, the San Francisco Giants. PacBell not only didn't lay on any high-speed access at the park's media center, it wouldn't allow anyone else in to provide service, Williams says.

NextWeb, headquartered in Fremont, CA, started as a San Francisco Bay/Silicon Valley-area WISP. It expanded its coverage by acquiring San Jose-based Innetix in April. Then with the acquisition of the assets of bankrupt Worldwide Wireless Networks, completed in October, it added a southern California power base. It now has coverage throughout Orange County near Los Angeles.

The company provides service in 60 California cities altogether, with approximately 36 tower sites. It targets small-medium enterprises (SMEs) exclusively and now has over 500 customers. They generate average monthly revenues-per-customer of "well over $500," Williams says. NextWeb, he adds, is on track to reach profitability by mid-2003.

The company's technology strategy has it using licensed 18 GHz spectrum for backhaul and 5.8 GHz U-NII-band point-to-multipoint technology for last mile connectivity. It initially used equipment from Adaptive Broadband -- now Axxcelera Broadband Wireless of Santa Barbara. CA. Today it also uses gear from Trango Broadband Wireless of San Diego, CA.

NextWeb did inherit some 2.4-GHz POPs from Worldwide Wireless but it's moving "aggressively" to switch them over to 5.8 GHz using the Trango equipment, Williams says. That will allow the company to offer the higher bandwidths and quality of service its business customers demand.

The Event Bandwidth business represents a tiny portion of NextWeb's total revenue, but as Williams says, it's profitable and high profile. Edison Field was just the highest profile.

The company has also provided temporary broadband access services for film premieres (including the Jim Carrey comedy Me Myself and Irene), film festivals (including the 2000 Yahoo! Film Festival and the California SUN International Animation Festival) and surfing competitions.

In a bizarre twist, NextWeb earlier this year provided a 4-Mbps dedicated Internet link to graphic design firm Dorsey Graphics to allow the company's employees to relocate temporarily to the sidewalk in front of the Century 22 Theater in San Jose.

Why? So they could stake a spot in line -- for days -- to scoop top tickets for the premiere of the latest Star Wars opus on May 16. The employees, complete with computers, monitors, office equipment and tents, were able to continue business operations uninterrupted.

"The press showed up," Williams recalls. "They were all amazed that the guy wanted to do this. It's another unique but good example of wireless technology at work."

NextWeb also serves close to a dozen top hotel-conference centers within its coverage area. With many, including the highest profile, the Stanford Park Hotel in Menlo Park, CA, it started by providing event bandwidth then ended up with a permanent contract.

At the Stanford Park, it installed one of the laptop-sized 5.8-GHz subscriber units and configured it to provide high-speed access in support of a global web cast of a conference.

"Once the event is done, we can scale that [high-speed connection] back down to say a T-1 (1.55 Mbps) level. But within 24 hours [of an event], they can call us and we can increase the bandwidth again to support the event," Williams says. "It's very attractive for hotels that do conventions."

Pricing for the service can be very reasonable as well -- as little as $2,000 for a 2Mbps link or $3,500 for a 8- to 10-Mbps connection. That includes installation, equipment and network services for up to 30 days.

Sometimes, if it's a short event, the price also includes onsite tech support to ensure the event goes off without a hitch. For the World Series, it was easy to find volunteers at NextWeb for the assignment. "Our guys really wanted to be there," Williams says. "They would almost be willing to pay to be on call that day."

The pricing, low compared to wireline alternatives, is as reasonable as it is in part because NextWeb doesn't have to factor in the amortized cost of the subscriber equipment, as it does with regular customers. With Event Bandwidth, the company knows it will get the equipment back in a few days, or in 30 days at the outside.

"We make a very good margin on this kind of service," Williams says. "But it still provides a tremendous value proposition for the customer."

Could other WISPs do the same? Not many are, according to Williams. But as he points out, if you already have the network infrastructure in place, it's an easy service to provide.

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