Britain's Rural Broadband Entrepreneur - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell

April 30, 2004

The company will grow "organically" to meet demonstrated demand, but Baker says it will be rapid growth. He expects Telabria to have "several thousand" subscribers within 12 months, probably spread over 100 or more communities.

The company is currently in the process of converting trial customers to paying customers in its three test markets. It has additional community implementations underway, and it has also had "a large number of enquiries [from other communities] since our public launch."

Telabria's strategy is to work with county councils (roughly equivalent to state governments in the U.S.) and borough councils (municipal governments) to identify communities where there may be sufficient demand for broadband Internet access to warrant a marketing push.

Telabria is both network operator and service provider so it ultimately markets to end-user subscribers. It is just about to start a local radio and newspaper campaign in southeast England to raise the company's profile. The work with local councils, however, is vital. "It's a very valuable partnership," Baker says.

The benefit is not all Telabria's. Many rural regions in Britain want to revitalize to retain the population they have, attract new people, and most important, attract businesses. "Bringing broadband in is really helping with that," Baker says.

Telabria is counting to some extent on pent-up demand in these communities. Part of its pitch is that if the community can drum up 20 paying subscribers willing to commit to buying the service, it will provide service - and it can provision within 30 days.

Another key part of the marketing strategy is to establish hotspots -- and ultimately hot zones -- in the communities so that subscribers can use the service elsewhere than in their homes or businesses.

Telabria worked with Britain's oldest brewer, Shepherd Neame to establish hotspots in pubs and hotels it owns in communities where Telabria was trialing the service. Shepherd Neame, founded in 1698, owns hotels and pubs across southeast England. Most British brewers own pubs.

"We're already talking to other brewers that own rural pubs who have seen what we've done with Shepherd Neame," Baker says.

Service at the hotspots is entirely free for now. Baker favors keeping it free for short-term usage, but possibly charging users beyond a certain time online.

For the first three communities, the company used satellite for backhaul, but Telabria is "completely backhaul agnostic," Baker says. "It's whatever is most suitable for the community and it's decided on a community-by-community basis."

Satellite broadband is suitable when there are only a limited number of subscribers -- 30 to 40. The company will also consider bringing in a dedicated line or using fixed wireless.

"We think fixed wireless is where the future is," Baker says. "As that whole market matures with the advent of WiMax and other technologies, it's going to play an important role for us."

For the last mile, Telabria is committed, at least for now, to Wi-Fi-based mesh technology, though it is keeping its options open as far as vendors go. It used mesh network equipment from WaveWireless (now a P-Com company) for the first three communities.

The "deepest, darkest" characterization is only partly a joke. England in general and southeast England in particular is topographically challenging for wireless -- lots of low hills and lots of trees and foliage. Much of the year rural southeast England is almost jungle-like. Mesh is the best solution available.

"We love mesh," Baker says. "We are seeing huge flexibility from mesh in rural areas where line of sight is very difficult. We haven't had one deployment yet where that hasn't been an issue -- there are no towers in the country."

"Mesh is also highly scalable and it allows us to get out fast. It's been great for us. If the customer has uninterrupted, high quality service, he doesn't care what the technology is, it doesn't matter to him -- but it does matter to us."

Telabria has so far been funded with private money. Baker says it will need additional outside financing to execute its aggressive business plan. He hopes he can find it in Britain, though he still has business interests in the U.S.

The company, of course, has proven nothing yet. The next 12 months will tell the story.

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