Serving Up a Super WLAN

By Ted Stevenson

January 21, 2003

An easy setup and low cost hardware, as well as a growing need for temporary Internet connections are key ingredients in a recipe for a new kind of ISP business model -- short-term, or 'event-based' networking services.

When the Super Bowl festivities get under way in San Diego, Calif. next weekend, the visiting throngs of fans will be protected by a network of security/surveillance cameras covering Qualcomm Stadium and adjacent parts of downtown.

The cameras will be linked by an "enhanced" 802.11b network, supplied by San Diego-based WLAN wholesaler SkyRiver Communications. This isn't SkyRiver's only service deal in the Qualcomm complex; it's been providing Internet service to stadium concessionaire Volunteer Services of America for the past six months or so. But this operation is different becuase it's temporary -- for Super Bowl weekend only.

According to SkyRiver's founder, President, and COO Lee Gopadze, the company has been offering short-term service for corporate and public events of limited duration since last fall (October 2002).

Short-term gigs

In many cases, SkyRiver's "event" assignments have involved networking remote security cameras--examples include construction job sites (before the communications infrastructure is installed) and auto dealers' tent sales--but installations can serve other purposes, too. For example, tent sales take advantage of a broadband Internet connection to perform quick credit checks and other needful chores.

At a recent wireless communications technology conference, SkyRiver set up a WLAN cyber cafe for the use of the attendees. Said Gopadze, "A competitor bid to install a T-1 for the three days of the event, and was going to charge $3,000. We did it for $300. It took two hours to install, two hours to tear down."

Indeed, ease of setup and removal is one of the big selling points of wireless broadband for short-term installations. Another, naturally, is freedom from the wireline grid. Eric DaVersa, SkyRiver Director of Sales, made the point: "It's hard--sometimes next to impossible--to get wireline connection to the sites we service. You have to line up the backhaul way in advance. And it's expensive." But if your event is within the area served by SkyRiver (see this San Diego County coverage map) the company will guarantee an installation to be up and running within three to five days after an order comes in.

Returning to the subject of the upcoming Super Bowl installation, Gopadze said "The whole operation will take less than three days from the get-go to complete installation. The only prep work involves deploying bucket trucks to set up the cameras."

New technology kids on the block

Founded in September 2000 and headquartered in San Diego, the firm brought some technological innovations to bear in supplying reliable, low-cost Internet and private data-network services to ISPs, IT consultants, and network solution providers. According to Gopadze, SkyRiver is currently supplying 55 local provider/resellers with last-mile fixed-wireless broadband, aimed primarily at small and medium-size businesses.

Why the wholesale strategy? "There's no lack of sales forces in the world--no need for us to build that part," says Lee Gopadze. "What there is a lack of is competent, reliable broadband service." And that's what the firm was built to deliver.

According to Gopadze, SkyRiver's founders were attracted to license-free 802.11 technology because it was inexpensive and reliable--and likely to continue to become more so over time. "But there were some negatives, too," said Gopadze, "mainly stemming from the nature of IP over Ethernet--CSMA, security, and other factors."

If it don't work, fix it
The first step the company took in addressing these shortcomings was developing a variant of the operating system that would still work with off-the-shelf 802.11 hardware components. "Basically, we took RF propagation techniques and system designs common to cellular networks and applied them to Wi-Fi," Gopadze said. SkyRiver has and continues to deliver a balance between low cost and reliability.

SkyRiver's technology innovations include beefing up basic 802.11 security substantially. "A lot of our improvements here are simply based on good network procedures," said Gopadze. Specifics mentioned include pass-phrases on base stations and MAC address-based authentication, which prevents duplicate subscriber logons. "We're not invulnerable," said Gopadze, "but no one has hacked our system so far."

Further enhancements, Gopadze reports, involved innovations in the base-station antenna, which uses a time division technique (employing a polling algorithm) to create momentary point-to-point connections with multiple remote nodes. The CPE, made from standard, off-the-shelf components from Proxim, Cisco, etc., also aims to balance low cost with robustness and interference resistance.

Event service business

Although SkyRiver has only been experimenting with short-term service installations for about four months (as mentioned, since October 2002), the business is already making a modest but measurable contribution to the company's bottom line. Gopadze estimates revenues from event sales to be between 4 and 5 percent of the total --and anticipates significant growth in this area.

The current offering features burstable 3.0 Mbps connections, billed at $799 per week, with an additional installation/de-installation fee of $399. This includes dedicated Internet access and a block of eight IP addresses. As mentioned, SkyRiver guarantees to have customers up and running within five days of receiving an order.

Reprinted from ISP-Planet.

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