Broadband for Yachts, Cannery Ships, and Coalition Warfare

By Alex Goldman

September 16, 2003

It required a naval background and a great deal of seed money, but privately owned Wheat Wireless has found one market niche where it faces no competition.

In North America, wherever you are, you've probably got a broadband option of some kind, whether it's satellite, Wi-Fi, or wireline. But Wheat Wireless has found one niche that no other company is competing for: Broadband at sea.

Wheat Wireless is part of Wheat International, named after the husband and wife team who founded the company, CEO Forrest C. Wheat, and senior and executive vice president Linda M. Wheat. Her professional background is at MCI, while his is at Research and Data Systems (RDS), a telecommunications firm specializing in government contracts. Mr. Wheat served in the U.S. Navy until 1983, and says his tour of duty included five years of combat service in Vietnam.

Wheat International is a subcontractor for such customers as AT&T and, through EDS, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

We spoke to Mr. Wheat about Wheat Wireless' TeleSea broadband Internet service. He said that Wheat Wireless has always been innovating. "We put a wireless system on a Chevy van in 1998, and we've been involved in things like CAT scans in the field," he said.

The TeleSea project incorporates three different services at three different prices. For Internet access anywhere in the world, the company offers TeleSea Blue. (Actually, there are still some parts of the world not visible to any satellite. Wheat notes, "there are still parts of the country not covered by satellite, and there are also parts of the ocean not covered by satellite.) For the moment, Blue service covers the coast of the U.S., the Caribbean, and the Pacific "out to Hawaii." The company expects to add Europe and South America soon, and then most of the rest of the world.

TeleSea Blue offers two speeds, 512 Kbps down/ 128 Kbps up or 1 Mbps down / 192 Kbps up. For either service, the installation fee is $50,000. The monthly fee is $1,495 for the faster service, $1,195 for the slower service, plus a monthly equipment lease of $149 after the first year. Wheat Wireless leases equipment to boat owners; it does not sell the equipment. More expensive options (pricing not disclosed) offer speeds up to 40 Mbps down. Boats with large numbers of simultaneous users, such as casino cruise ships in the Gulf of Mexico, seem likely clients.

TeleSea Gold is a local service that uses radio towers instead of satellite technology. The radio towers provide broadband out to 30 miles at specific locations. Wheat notes that a flotilla of ships, such as a fishing expedition, can install Blue on the mother ship (a cannery ship) while other smaller (fishing) vessels use Gold to connect to satellite broadband through the mother ship. Fees are $7,500 installation plus $500 per month, with an equipment lease of $65 per month after the first year.

TeleSea Marina is the cheapest option. It uses no external antenna, and is priced accordingly, at $19.95 per day, $99.95 per week, or $159.95 per month. The company also charges a refundable $350 equipment deposit.

Installation fees are high because installation can be complex. "If you're talking about a 540 foot steel hull boat," explained Wheat, "we have to do work outside and then bring the Internet inside on Ethernet." Installation has to be weatherproof and fault-redundant, including battery backup.

It took a large network, agreements with other satellite providers, and even some in-house R&D to get the project off the ground. "We have our own antenna system, and we have our own cards for the Marina service," explained Wheat. "We're much more than just a Wi-Fi radio. We have a secure and authenticated network with data centers in Miami and California. Authentication happens in San Diego."

The company establishes relationships with major marinas, and that, in turn, gives Wheat Wireless customers the ability to roam. "Someone might want to use it at one yacht club in Maryland part of the year and then another in Florida for the rest of the year," explained Wheat.

Phone calls over the company's network can be routed through any of the various satellite providers. Wheat said prices vary widely from as low as $1.25 per minute on Iridium to as much as $75 per minute on Inmarsat. "We have our own switching team," Wheat added.

The company claims a large variety of customers. Wheat said, "We've got cruise ships, tow boats towing cargo in the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands, private yachts (80 foot or larger), way stations, and the navies of the world. Today, with coalition warfare, any number of countries may send smaller vessels. In the old days, each country had a different type of system. All of a sudden, with the Internet, we can provide intranets so coalition forces can work together."

But it's all about getting the basics right. "We test the equipment," says Wheat. "Boats can have UHF, radar, satellite, even microwaves. We test them all operating simultaneously. That's what separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak."

Reprinted from ISP-Planet.



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