Extricom's Education Grant

By Gerry Blackwell

March 29, 2007

Free equipment? Inexpensive equipment? Maybe both, for the schools who are awarded part of the $1 million the company is doling out this year.

It’s not an entirely original marketing ploy, but it is a bold one. Last month, Extricom, a maker of Wi-Fi infrastructure equipment targeted at enterprise markets, announced its first annual Education Grant Program. Total funds available: a cool million.

The company says it will distribute equipment or discounts on equipment to institutions working on network projects in 2007.  K-12 and college-level institutions in both the U.S. and Canada are eligible. Cut-off date for applications is April 15, so you've got about two weeks.

“It’s a good thing to do,” says Extricom vice president of marketing David Confalonieri. “We know that educational institutions are high adopters [of Wi-Fi]. We also know that they’re some of the most cash-strapped organizations in the country. If we can help them, offer some incentives, offer economical ways for them to upgrade or build networks, everybody wins. They get access to the technology, we get access and visibility to opportunities.”

So it’s not quite 100% altruistic.

Education, healthcare, warehousing and manufacturing are the top four enterprise markets for Wi-Fi, Confalonieri says. And a quarter to a third of Extricom’s 100-plus deployments are in the education sector. The combination of great need in an already lucrative and much fought-over market may have made the grant program almost a no-brainer.

Founded in Israel in June 2002, Extricom has offices in London, New York, Tel Aviv and Tokyo. The company has 75 employees today after doubling its workforce over the last two years. It expects to double in size again this year. Extricom is privately held, with funding from venture capital firms and from Motorola. It has not disclosed its annual revenues.

The company sells Wi-Fi switches and “ultra-thin” access points that work with any standard 802.11 client device, concentrating all the Wi-Fi and network logic at the switch, connected by Ethernet cabling to each AP in a star configuration. The only thing left at the access point is the radio – no software, not even an IP address.

Extricom believes its approach makes a particularly compelling proposition for educational institutions and other enterprises that are now past the “dabbling” phase with Wi-Fi. These organizations are looking for more comprehensive coverage, higher network capacity and the ability to support more applications -- including, especially, voice.

The Extricom technology delivers all of that, Confalonieri says. Plus, it makes deployment very simple. No RF survey is needed, for example. Networks configure themselves, automatically solving the kind of interference and dead-spot issues that often plague WLAN deployments. “[Customers] are typically shocked at how rapidly they can deploy a network,” he says.

Many Extricom prospects are planning to run VoIP over their Wi-Fi networks. The company’s technology uniquely solves vexing problems around call hand-off. In most WLAN architectures, which use a cell structure, the client device must manage hand-offs from one access point to the next as the user moves through a facility. In an Extricom network, the switch manages the entire process.

“In our centralized world, there is no relationship between access point and client,” Confalonieri explains. “All of the Wi-Fi logic has moved to the switch. As the user moves, the client is being served by whichever radio is nearest, but the client never even knows that there are 10 or 15 access points out there.”

Access points in an Extricom network, he says, are like “RF jacks” – one of the reasons they’re so easy to deploy.

Many educational institutions are being pushed into greater reliance on Wi-Fi, Confalonieri says. Glynn County in Georgia, for example, has decreed that every student should have access to a laptop computer. The question is: how to connect them all? The only practical answer is Wi-Fi, but coverage and capacity issues with conventional Wi-Fi make it difficult. And the school district has an overburdened IT department with only five people.

“That creates a perfect storm for us,” Confalonieri says. “Government is making policy, and people are trying to implement it and running into serious problems.”

Extricom thinks it can help solve those kinds of problems – both with the technology and with the grant program. The company is a little vague about the details of how it will distribute its largess, however.

What are the criteria for selection? Confalonieri and director of channel marketing Matthew Riccoboni, originator of the grant scheme, mention only one. Funding or equipment must be for projects to be completed in 2007, probably in the summer, the time when educational institutions typically undertake infrastructure projects.

How many grants will be awarded, and how much will each be? “We estimate between 100 and 300 schools,” Confalonieri says. “If a university shows up and says it has a project to light up 40 buildings, they may get a proportionally larger chunk of the money. But we prefer that the grant doesn’t get chewed up by only a few schools.”

Later, however, he says that it will be “first come, first served,” and implies that if a smaller number of schools make applications early on for amounts that deplete the entire fund, then the number of grants could be smaller. On the other hand, “We always reserve the right to extend the grant, make it bigger or extend it over time,” he says.

At the same time, “When the money runs out, it runs out,” Confalonieri says.

What will determine whether the grant will be in the form equipment or discounts? The best answer is that Extricom will be flexible – implying that it’s up to the applicant. Discounts granted will be in the 10% to 15% range, and will be taken off the nominal retail price. Extricom sells through channels. Schools will make their deals with resellers, then Extricom will apply the discount.

An Extricom press release specifically refers to it as the “first annual Education Grant Program.” So is the company committed to doing it again next year? “In principle, we’d like to run it every year,” Confalonieri says. “How big it is, how broad it is, depends on how this one goes. But all things being equal, I can’t see why we wouldn’t do it again next year.”

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