Extreme Makover: Wireless Edition

By Adam Stone

March 09, 2006

This Texas company says its small size keeps it nimble — enough to help a national TV show get connectivity with 24 hours' notice.

Here's what we say: size matters not.

Okay, it was actually Yoda who said it. But the sentiment holds, even when talking about Wi-Fi gadgets and gizmos.

Take, for instance, DeFacto Wireless Distribution, a two-year-old supplier and manufacturer of Wi-Fi equipment. With just 10 people on staff, this Texas company is making a name for itself in the world of wireless networking. We're talking national TV here.

In December 2005, DeFacto rigged up a wireless network for the ABC "reality” series Extreme Makover: Home Edition, which was filming in a rural area of Washington County, Texas. "They come into an area and they want cell phone and fax and all these capabilities," says DeFacto COO Mark Williams. "They had counted on the fact that everywhere they go, they can obtain connectivity, no problem. In this case, it just wasn’t available in that area."

To resolve the problem, Defacto teamed with Texas Broadband Internet to design and bring in a portable tower and install a high speed wireless network for the four-acre job site.

The company got just 24 hours' notice on the project, but that proved to be no obstacle. Despite its small size, DeFacto already had experience in rolling out large-scale Wi-Fi networks in compressed timeframes.

Recently, the company had mounted a test scenario to demonstrate what wireless could deliver in emergency situations. Within 24 hours, it built a 32-square-mile network in Hot Springs, Ark., using helium balloons to take antennae aloft, and powering the setup with batteries and solar cells.

With the network up and running, "you could drive along on the bypass there and surf the Internet at 60 miles an hour," Williams says.

In addition to utilizing others' technology, DeFacto also has distinguished itself in the market through the development of its Airmatrix line of products. Airmatrix incorporates a mesh router, antenna and power supply all in one small unit that can be mounted outdoors.

"We feel like we are innovating in different directions than others," Williams says.

While bigger companies are competing in this space, Williams suggests that his company's smaller size actually gives it an edge, by allowing it to keep down R&D expenses, thereby reducing the overall cost of the product. While a typical mesh unit can run from $1,700 to $3,000, Williams says DeFacto brings in Airmatrix at about $600 plus the cost of the antenna.

While the idea of a 10-person shop making waves may seen unlikely to some, analysts say present market conditions in the realm of wireless equipment may indeed make it possible for smaller manufacturers to thrive.

In a recent survey of the home Wi-Fi market, for instance, "brand was not a very high priority," says Ina Sebastian, a research associate at Jupiter Research. "Overall, 12 percent of Wi-Fi consumers wanted the same brand they already had at home."

Consumers said pricing, security and compliance were big issues, but they didn’t care much about brand names. This opens a window for the up-and-coming, who can stare down bigger names on a relatively equal footing.

Williams says the changing market also could favor smaller firms.

A year ago, smaller telcos were just opening their eyes to the possibility of having a wireless local loop, he says. "Going into this year, we are starting to see them acting on that. The reality has sunk in, and they are moving forward beyond pilot projects."

This could mean more competition, but it also will mean an increased pace of implementation, and that is good news for an equipment maker. As more companies begin building systems, Williams says, he will have a greater chance to form winning partnerships. "That was a void for a long time, and now we are starting to see competent talent out there, which gives us the opportunity to get aligned with them and to react to what they need," he says.

How to gain an edge in that environment? Williams says the key lies in more trade shows, more industry publications, more marketing overall.

"Without it, you're operating strictly on word of mouth, which is fine and dandy up to a point," he says. "But when you are trying to support future R&D efforts, you need to have that cash flow moving, which is why the marketing gets so important."



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