Airimba Beats on the MDUs

By Eric Griffith

May 19, 2004

The sometimes overlooked market of wireless broadband for apartment complexes has a new player that hopes to beat the cable and DSL guys with better pricing and mobility for end-users.

Airimba Wireless is a relatively new company, but isn't exactly new to what it does -- namely, providing Wi-Fi as the primary broadband connection in multi-dwelling units (MDUs, also known as apartment complexes). They're also powering some hotspots.

The company was born out of the acquisition of local operators in Austin, Texas, and Clemson, S.C. says newly installed president and CEO Terry Scott. He's a man with some experience with wireless companies, including being on the board of directors of the late MobileStar (a company once heralded to become a leader in hotspots when it got the original Starbucks Coffee deal).

Now Scott's new company is expanding beyond its first two cities to target similar, smaller markets filled with "young mobile pros, college students... those with a high likelihood of using wireless where they're residents," says Scott.

The company announced last week it has moved into Athens, Ga.; Chapel Hill/Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Gainesville, Fla.; Greenville, N.C.; and, Wilmington, N.C. They already got 70 locations in their seven total markets.

Scott calls Airimba a "soup to nuts wireless ISP. We go into the market, have a relationship with the owner of the MDU, build out systems, connect the backhaul, then jointly market [the service] to the subscribers." Airimba handles all the network back end, including the billing.

The MDU networks are created with the setup of access points throughout a complex, but not necessarily on every floor. Scott says the installers will do a site survey on every floor to determine the best setup for all-around coverage.

"Some buildings are more of a challenge than others. Stucco buildings with the wire mesh screen under can be a challenge. Those with thick firewalls between units are a challenge. But they're challenges, not obstacles," says Scott.

For equipment, he wouldn't say what they're using, only that they're partial to a couple of companies and try to use commoditized equipment for items like antennas and cables.

The company headquarters is in Richardson, Texas, and that's where network monitoring will take place. Personnel-wise, Airimba will have a decentralized structure, with local managers in an office in each local town. Those people will be the liaisons with the MDU owners and can help with minimal support issues, such as helping users purchase Wi-Fi cards if needed. Airimba wants to keep such assistance to a minimum though.

"Every time you do a truck roll it costs money, and that's not our goal-- we don't want to be helping people set up computers," says Scott. They'll have some national phone-based tech support, but will likely push people toward local tech support contacts.

Sign-up can be done by visiting an Airimba local office, or if you're on an Airimba property, just going through the signup screens that will come up on a wireless Laptop. Why wireless when so many buildings could, in theory, get wired broadband connections and just hook up their own wireless router? Scott says people will want it for the "absolute flexibility. You can move around the apartment or complex or the hotspot. A cable provider with a fixed point connection can't string down to the common areas, like the pool."

He knows that ultimately, even if people like to move around, Airimba has got to be price competitive to stay ahead of the established broadband providers. Pricing varies from market to market, but he says it only ranges up to the high $20s to use Airimba. According to the Airimba.com site, they currently have a $28.95 per month promotion for those who sign up, though the regular service price is listed as $33.95.

There are discounts for each additional PC you might add to an existing account (with four on one account you would pay only $12.95 per PC per month), and the company is discussing offering a daily rate so guests with their own PCs could use the system.

"It comes down to what's the most price effective and the best system available," says Scott. "We intend to be that system."



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