Florida: The Wireless State?

By Adam Stone

February 03, 2003

If Data Wave and Sago Networks have their way, 802.11 technology will be the basis for last-mile Internet connections throughout the Sunshine State.

Forget about hotspots. The way Larue Boyce and Robert Dunlap have it figured, there are bigger and better uses for 802.11 out there, and more money to be made, too. "Everybody else wants to talk about hotspots," said Boyce, "but for the life of me I cannot come up with a business case where an independent operator can make any money that way."

As CEO and president, respectively, of Florida-based Data Wave, Boyce and Dunlap have been working instead on a plan to use 802.11 as the technology backbone for last-mile solutions. As conceived, their scheme would use 802.11 connectivity to bring wireless Internet to most of Florida's major cities in the coming years.

The idea is to sign up enough customers (ideally 24 or more) in a geographically constrained area to make it worth setting up a network in that area. Then as more customers sign on nearby, the signal would be leapfrogged from one to the next in order to continuously expand the radius of service. The company already has built a network to encompass 13 client businesses in Jacksonville, FL

"We feel that [802.11] is the best technology on the market right now for doing this," said Boyce. "It avoids the issues of regulatory requirements, including the fees for the licensing of bandwidth, which are just outrageous for a small business."

In terms of deployment, "the foliage on the trees has been the biggest issue," he says -- and it is not a joke. Given Florida's balmy climate, Data Wave engineers make it a point to do detailed site surveys in order to ensure a clean line of sight even in the face of a heavy-duty growing season.

As it competes with the big telecommunications companies, Data Wave is hawking a number of advantages, including a bigger pipe at a lower cost. Perhaps most significant, though, is the deployment time made possible by wireless technology. While a telecommunications company can take 30 to 45 days to deliver broadband once an order is placed, Data Wave claims that it can turn on a customer's service in just a couple of days in an area where its network is already established.

Others competing for this space make similar claims. Take for instance Sago Networks, another Florida-based firm, this one in Tampa. The company already has some 300 clients signed up for its broadband, wireless last-mile solution, which it delivers with a combination of 802.11 and other technologies.

Sago COO Shane Prevatte said that in most cases he can ignite a new client's service in as little as a day and a half, and he added that this is "an enormous selling point" when he is in competition with the large telecommunications providers.

Analysts say there could be real potential in the idea of selling 802.11 as a last-mile technology. In the first place, there is a void to fill in the marketplace. "There are a lot of areas that have a dense population where you still can't get DSL or cable," said Eddie Hold, a wireless analyst with research firm Current Analysis in Sterling, VA.

Moreover, 802.11's present mindshare could give a boost to firms like Data Wave. "It's built into a lot of laptops now, you can use it at Starbucks, and people are talking about it. Everybody believes it is the 'next big wave,' " said Hold. "So if you are going to invest in equipment, this will be the equipment you are going to invest in."

Still, Hold sees a potential roadblock, especially when it comes to selling 802.11 into the small- to mid-sized business market. "In that market, people will be very concerned about security," he said, adding that potential vendors "will need to address that head-on if they want to get anywhere."

Concerns about security are "still a marketing challenge," Prevatte acknowledged, "but it is getting better. Many people are getting more comfortable with the technology. It is getting written up more, and the users are educating themselves more."

Certainly 802.11 networking is better understood in the business community today than it was a year ago. Yet, as firms like Sago and Data Wave try to gain a foothold, it is clear that this issue of just how much the customer knows remains very much a key element in whether a sale will be made.

"Either they understand what we do, or they are totally clueless about what we do," said Dunlap. "So there is an educational process that we have to do."

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