The Wireless Mall Rat

By Gerry Blackwell

June 17, 2003

A blockbuster deal to unwire 63 shopping malls puts San Diego-based Wireless Facilities Inc. solidly on the Wi-Fi map. They say the success is because of their radio frequency expertise.

Desmond Wheatley admits his company, San Diego-based Wireless Facilities Inc. , a wireless network systems integrator, is better at engineering than marketing.

This can be the only reason WFI hasn't made more noise in the Wi-Fi world, because the company is doing ground-breaking work, including some with the The Westfield Group, an international owner and manager of premier shopping malls.

WFI recently announced a comprehensive deal with Westfield that will see it deploy mall-wide Wi-Fi networks in all 63 of the company's U.S. shopping centers by the end of this year. The first, Shoppingtown Mission Valley West in San Diego, is already up and running. Ten more are underway.

WFI charged into the Wi-Fi market in the middle of last year, but it's no start-up. The company's core business is installing and maintaining cellular and PCS networks, which it has been doing since its inception in 1994. It went public in 1999.

Market capitalization today stands at $690 million. WFI has over 1,500 employees and operates all over the world, though 70 percent of its business is stll in the U.S.

"The reason that Wi-Fi is a significant area of interest to us now is the same reason that it is for everybody else," says Wheatley, who is managing director of WFI's Wi-Fi intiative.

The low cost of entry and the commitment from Intel among other things make Wi-Fi a huge business opportunity, the company believes.

"So now with everything we've learned about deploying wireless networks we're taking that core expertise and focusing it on the wireless LAN area," Wheatley says.

WFI started with the enterprise market. It already has one blockbuster deployment at the One America Plaza business complex in San Diego where it installed a fibre and copper backbone to power a ubiquitous Wi-Fi network.

"It goes from the parking lot to the top of the building," Wheatley says. "It's now a smart building. Anything in the building that's IP addressable can be addressed. The tenants all have access to the Internet through Wi-Fi."

WFI is also deploying other innovative applications, a hallmark of the company's Wi-Fi work. Security personnel, for example, use "hat cams" -- Wi-Fi video cameras installed in their uniform caps, which are connected to a Wi-Fi-connected PDA.

At the click of a PDA button, a security guard can start streaming full-motion video over the wireless network to colleagues and home base. In the event of a dispute or altercation, the video will be invaluable evidence of what actually happened, Wheatley points out.

Janitors and maintenance staff carry tablet devices so they can respond to trouble tickets from wherever they are rather than waiting until they get back to home base to get their next assignment.

One America Plaza is WFI's flagship smart building deployment, but the company is currently working on five or six others, with more deals in the works.

It is also working with a couple of as yet unannounced California beach towns deploying municipal Wi-Fi hot zones. One will provide seamless coverage over a square mile.

Local law enforcement sees WFI's Wi-Fi-powered video security system as a huge boon. It will allow experienced officers to tune in on a junior colleagues' engagements and offer advice and back-up.

The Westfield deal, meanwhile, is the biggest thing on WFI's Wi-Fi map. The exciting thing about it is not just the scope of the deployments, but the scope of the applications and the vision the partners are bringing to the project.

Each mall will be a Wi-Fi hot zone providing high-speed Internet access to visitors and tenants. Visitors will be able to pay in a number of ways, with monthly subscriptions -- WFI is working on roaming deals with other hotspot operators -- or by buying scratch cards in the mall for prepaid service.

Wheatley believes the recently launched Apple Music Store selling downloadable singles online for 99 cents is a trend that will drive traffic into the malls. Customers who don't have broadband access at home will come to the mall to download songs faster -- and presumably stay to shop.

Public access in the malls is just the tip of the iceberg, though.

Mall security guards will also use the RFI video security system. Mall tenants, especially those in kiosks in the middle of aisles, will be able to get a wireless connection for point-of-sale credit card authorisation terminals.

One fairly recent phenomenon in malls is the placement of large flat screen television monitors to show advertising -- either from national advertisers or tenants in the mall. The problem is getting a video feed to the screen.

One popular spot to place the screens is in the middle of an aisle. The only way to provision a wired feed is to trench through floor tiling, which mall owners typically don't like to do. Besides, the advertising companies like to experiment with locations. Once they've run wires to a location, it's too expensive to think of moving it.

Plus, if they provision a dedicated DSL line to the screen, they're stuck with that bandwidth. It's not scalable.

"With the wireless net," Wheatley notes, "they can place the monitor wherever they want, because there's power virtually everywhere, and they can increase or decrease the amount of bandwidth depending on need, and move the screens around wherever they want."

Muzak-style music service providers are often reduced to sending mall tenant customers their carefully selected music programs to on CD. These companies would like be able to offer a service that varies the program in real time and requires no effort by the customer, but the only way to distribute feeds to malls would be by satellite which is expensive. Wi-Fi can solve this problem as well.

With all the multimedia applications, the malls may need massive amounts of throughput. WFI says it is committed to providing adequate capacity.

"The pipes will start out fat and get fatter," Wheatley says. "It will be a minimum of a T-1 for the public space [in each mall], increasing as needed. We'll monitor all the malls from our network operations center in San Diego. If we see utilisation consistently rise above, say, 70 percent [of capacity], we'll make adjustments."

If internal capacity requirements rise high enough, WFI will switch to 802.11a or 802.11g where necessary. It will take 10 to 50 access points just to cover each mall from end to end. WFI is standardizing on Cisco equipment.

"We're great beleivers in standardization," Wheatley says. "We learned this in the cellular business. The key is to know you have installers with the same training, the same radios, the same antennas going out on those truck rolls."

AAA/billing functions for all of the malls will be handled from WFI's network operations center in San Diego. Wheatley won't say much about the structure of the Westfield deal, other than that WFI will take in service revenues from tenants and visitors, and that there will be some kind of split in revenues.

He's even vague about ownership of infrastructure. Apparently some will be owned by RFI, some by Westfield, some by un-named third-party players.

Westfield is WFI's biggest Wi-Fi deal, but the one Wheatley was most excited about the day we talked to him was the Harbor Bay Maritime Ferry. WFI had just deployed a system that provides wireless Internet access to commuters on the run between San Francisco and Bay Far Island in Alameda. The service uses Wi-Fi on board the ferry, but also for backhaul -- over the full 7.5 miles of the ferry's route.

"It was technologically taxing for sure," Wheatley says. "But we just tested it on Friday and got excellent signal strength through the whole length of the route. In the next week or so passengers will be able to use it."

The Bay ferry deployment, which is already garnering interest from other ferry boat companies in the area, is one more illustration, Wheatley says, of the competitive edge RFI brings to the market -- its deep expertise in RF engineering.

Until now, the big issues around public access Wi-Fi have been business issues. "But increasingly," he says, "it will be an RF and engineering issue. When you start talking about an environment like Westfield, with its mutiple media and multiple VPNs, now you're talking about RF issues, and if you don't have that kind of expertise, you can't do it."

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