SkyPilot and the Wireless of Tomorrow

By Gerry Blackwell

January 25, 2005

The company sells 802.11a-based non-line-of-sight equipment for carriers using off-the-shelf parts, but with homemade mesh software systems which it says gives it a leg up against the competition.

A sky pilot in military lingo is an army chaplain who, according to the 1970s anti-war song by the Animals, "smiles at the young soldiers, tells them it's all right."

We're guessing that if anything it was the song's soaring chorus that inspired the naming of SkyPilot Network. The four-year-old company has really started to take off recently with its "carrier grade" Wi-Fi (802.11a) mesh network solution. It allows operators to cost-effectively deploy non-line of sight (NLOS) wireless broadband access services.

The song says the sky pilot will "never never never reach the sky," but SkyPilot's systems are in the air today. The company announced recently that Telabria, a UK-based wireless service provider that I wrote about last year, chose the SkyPilot System to deliver last-mile connectivity in an innovative hybrid network that also includes wireless backhaul using 802.16-based (aka "pre-WiMAX") equipment from Redline Communications.

Telabria was the first customer of any size for SkyPilot, but it's one of a few major projects the company is currently working on. It already had smaller deployments in Reno, Nev., and Australia. SkyPilot has sold systems, mainly for tests and trials, in 20 countries and 22 states so far. The company expects to number deployments "in the low hundreds" by the end of 2005, says vice president of marketing Linda Kalcic.

The original vision for the company was to build a national broadband backbone network and operate both as a broadband service provider and carriers' carrier. By 2002 it had done the lion's share of development on the technology needed to execute the original plan, but at that point the telecom slump and tighter money forced the realization that perhaps SkyPilot had bitten off too much.

"Either [part of the original plan] could be a company on its own," notes CEO Mark Johnson. "And we were trying to do both." The relaunch of the company in 2002 as a network equipment provider was "not a bad thing at all," Johnson says. "We just said, 'Let's focus on what will make the company successful.'"

Today, the company is betting its future on the SkyPilot System. The system exploits low-cost 802.11 chip and off-the-shelf antenna technology, and adds innovative scheduling and routing technology—SkyPilot's principal intellectual property. The technology allows efficient reuse of spectrum and optimum routing through the mesh, and also helps reduce the self-interference that plagues many mesh solutions.

The result is a system that offers true NLOS characteristics and uses a self-configuring mesh topology, though it's not defined by its mesh characteristics. "Mesh isn't in and of itself the answer," Johnson explains, "but it is a key to getting the low network latency you have to have in a true broadband network."

The comprehensive network solution includes three main components. The SkyGateway connects to the Internet and communicates with SkyExtenders, the mesh network nodes, and SkyConnectors, the customer premises equipment (CPE). The SkyGateway includes eight directional antennas with a 360-degree range, a motherboard with Atheros 802.11 chipset and the SkyPilot routing and scheduling hardware and software.

A small network might need only one SkyGateway, but more can easily be added, the company says, allowing operators to scale up gradually as required. Cost: about $2,500 each.

The SkyExtender includes many of the same hardware components as the Gateway but costs about $500. It can be installed on a light or utility pole, a roof or any fixed structure. It's powered over a Cat5 Ethernet cable. The SkyPilot scheduling and routing technology allows it to talk to SkyGateways and SkyConnectors simultaneously.

The indoor SkyConnector needs to be oriented towards a SkyGateway or SkyExtender but is NLOS and subscriber installable. "My mother can set one of these things up," Johnson says. Cost: about $350 in quantities of one.

As Kalcic says, though, "It's a volume game. The greater the volume, the lower the cost of the CPE and the more we can deliver in terms of economies of scale."

The company's early aspirations to be a network provider is part of what differentiates it in the marketplace today, says Johnson. One of the key features of the system is the network management software. Network managers can monitor and control the network right down to the subscriber level from a central network operations center (NOC).

"Part of the benefit of coming from our background is that we looked at it from the point of view of an end-to-end solution," says Johnson. "How do you get back out to the Internet, how do you manage all the way down to the subscriber level? It's a much more complex picture than many other vendors paint."

SkyPilot sees itself competing, on the one hand, with high-end wireless access systems from vendors such as Alvarion that mostly operate in licensed spectrum. SkyPilot's solutions are less expensive, says Kalcic. It also competes with proprietary mesh network vendors such as Motorola with its Canopy product, and 802.11b-based mesh solutions from companies such as Tropos Networks and BelAir Networks.

"Most often when we're going after the carrier space we find folks are dissatisfied with the spectrum efficiency with Motorola," Kalcic says. "If you want range you have to add parabolic antennas—so it starts at one price, customers find, and keeps adding up."

SkyPilot claims to offer better capacity and range than Tropos or BelAir. Because neither uses the same kind of intelligent routing and synching that SkyPilot networks does, you need to continually add new access points to extend coverage, which adds to cost, Kalcic says. "You run into some real scalability issues."

How inexpensive is SkyPilot compared to the solutions it competes against? It depends, Johnson says. Cost per subscriber—for both infrastructure and CPE—varies from one deployment to the next, based on the type and level of service to be offered, the RF environment, subscriber density and so on.

"We see people out there with networks [from other vendors] that cost about $15,000 to $20,000 per square mile, where customers of ours are doing it for more like $8,000 to $10,000," he says. "We're happy to go head to head with any of our competitors."

The company has been funded to the tune of $29.5 million to date. However, it will need more capital before the end of 2005, though—a "relatively paltry amount" that "should take to profitability," Kalcic says.

Johnson says the company has the technology to deliver what it's promising. His only fear is that over-hype of wireless and the inability of some other vendors to deliver will discourage service providers from trying wireless for access services. SkyPilot's strategy, Johnson says, is always to "under promise and over deliver," at least until some of its larger deployments become public and it has something to show prospects.

"At this point," he says of SkyPilot's prospects, "it's just execution. We have a great product and a great architecture. We're in the process of growing from being a smaller company to being a larger one. It really is just a question now of making sure our initial customers are successful and make money [so we can prove our case]."

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