Wi-Fi in the City: UK Version - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell

September 21, 2006

Today Telabria sells service under the brand name SoBroadband primarily to businesses, with network speeds ranging up to 10 Mbps. It has fewer than 1,000 customers in seven centers, all in Kent and Sussex in the south of England -- cities such as Canterbury and Ashford. Residential packages start at £20 (about $37 USD) a month, business services at £50 (about $93).

“We’re getting there,” Baker says of the SoBroadband business. “But it’s a fairly long-term commitment. We’re trying to sell services [to business] that cost £250 and £380 a month, so we don’t necessarily put a value on the number of subscribers. It’s more the revenues they generate.”

Over 40% of customers also take VoIP service from Telabria, with prices starting at £10 (about $19) a month. That is considerably higher than the national penetration rate for VoIP, Baker points out.

At the same time, the company continues to build Wi-Fi hotspots like those it started with three years ago, many of them in pubs. It has about 120 in place and is starting to build outdoor hotzones in some of its WiMax markets as well. It will do more in the hotzone space in 2007.

Baker is intrigued by the advertising-supported public Wi-Fi business model pioneered by Chuck Haas, CEO and co-founder of MetroFi, a Mountain View, California company deploying hotzones in Silicon Valley and soon in Portland, Oregon. But the Telabria hotzones will probably continue to be accessed for a fee. “He must have a good business plan because he’s raised quite a bit of money,” Baker says of Haas. “But we’ve taken a different stance.”

Meanwhile, Telabria’s other hardware product is selling into a market that Baker thinks has great potential. The company has already sold to National Express, one of the largest long-distance coach services in the UK. The technology works very much the way train Wi-Fi systems work -- using cellular for backhaul and Wi-Fi for the last ten meters -- but with cheaper, more portable equipment. “The boxes are priced at under $1,000 so that fleet owners can afford to put one in every vehicle,” Baker says.

In September, Telabria will add GPS tracking to the mSystem AP-3G. PC software will allow a fleet operator to see where a vehicle is on an onscreen map.

Backhaul for now is via 3G cellular, but the Telabria technology is network-agnostic. Baker believes the future of mobile broadband is HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), also sometimes referred to as 3.5G or 3½G. It provides an evolutionary path for UMTS-based 3G networks and delivers data transfer speeds up to 14.4 Mbps downlink and 2 Mbps uplink.

Vodafone Group and T-Mobile (UK) are both offering limited HSDPA coverage in the UK, with data speeds in the 2 Mbps range. They’re pushing the service hard, with prices under £20 a month, Baker says. “It’s priced to be a portable DSL connection.”

He is betting on HSDPA over 802.16e, the revision of WiMax that will support high-speed mobile connections. “By the time 16e hits, HSDPA will already have been out for 18 months,” Baker points out. “When you look at the marketing budgets these guys [the big mobile operators deploying HSDPA] have, 16e will be highly challenged.”

WiMax will dominate in the fixed wireless broadband space, though, he says. Telabria has always followed a multi-vendor strategy, and Baker is eager to get his hands on the first fully standards-based and interoperable WiMax gear -- which he believes will probably ship from Airspan Networks and Axxcelera Broadband Wireless.

To keep it all going, though, costs. Telabria has raised about £2.3 million, mostly from private investors, but is looking for venture capital funding, including from the U.S., where Baker, a Briton, cut his entrepreneurial teeth in Silicon Valley companies. He returned to the UK in 2003 and started Telabria shortly after.

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