Something Big in the Air

By Todd Woody

September 18, 2002

A Sydney startup gets ready to launch a wireless last-mile alternative to Telstra.

As the global tech downturn drags on, much hope - and hype - is being pinned on 802.11 wireless technology as The Next Big Thing, a last-mile miracle.

Now a Sydney startup called BigAir is out to show that such talk is not just hot air. The company, founded by a trio of thirty-something telecom veterans, is preparing to launch a carrier-grade, fixed wireless service by early November as an alternative to Telstra.

"We hope to be the first in Australia to get fixed wireless on the map," says Jason Ashton, BigAir's 30-year-old chairman. "Wireless will change the world in the same way that the Internet changed the world."

But he's talking about evolution, not revolution. BigAir initially will offer its 802.11 service in Sydney's inner west suburbs. The target customers: residents and small business owners frustrated by the cost and hassle of obtaining broadband from the big T and other corporate providers.

The plan is to roll out coverage across metropolitan Sydney, one base station at a time, and then move on to other capital cities. BigAir's challenge is to show that 802.11 is not just a coffeehouse curiosity but a viable alternative to copper and cable.

On a visit to BigAir's small Surry Hills office last week, I found Ashton, formerly CEO of NTT Australia, and co-founders Patrick Choi and Rob Gillan huddled around computers running on a wireless connection at 6 mbps. Choi, BigAir's 35-year-old managing director, previously served as a director of PowerTel. CTO Gillan, 39, is a veteran of Alcatel and C&W Optus.

Ashton takes me outside and points to the metre-tall antennae of a wireless base station perched atop the 14-story office building. Each base station will cover 12 square kilometers, potentially reaching about 10,000 homes and businesses, according to Ashton.

BigAir, which is being funded by private equity, plans to install 75 rooftop base stations over the next two years in metro Sydney. "The cost for us is surprisingly low. I can't go into too much detail, but we believe it's an order of magnitude lower than proprietary equipment," says Ashton, adding that that except for the antennae assembly, its network is based on Cisco Systems equipment.

BigAir has been conducting commercial trials in Sydney's inner west since June with 10 households and a handful of businesses. The results, so far, have been encouraging, Ashton says. Interference, that 802.11 bugaboo, has not been a problem. Line of sight, or near line of sight, between base station and customer is usually required for 802.11 wireless. But thanks to reflection from buildings, most of BigAir's connections have been made without direct line of sight, Ashton notes.

Customers will need to purchase a wireless card for their computer and BigAir will install a small antennae in their homes and connect it to the computer by a cable. The company is not yet revealing pricing but Ashton vows it will be competitive with existing broadband services.

While we're standing outside BigAir's office building, Ashton pulls out a wireless iPaq handheld and checks his email and scans CNN headlines. The signal from the rooftop antennae is strong enough to allow subscribers to go online if they pop into a nearby pub for a pint. In the future Big Air plans to offer wireless roaming as an added service. Just how many people will be enticed to cut the cord and take to BigAir remains to be seen, as does the reliability of the service.

The company will have to overcome concerns over security, interference and the perception that 802.11 is not quite ready for prime time. Certainly Telstra and other big broadband providers are doing nothing to dispel such notions. During the recent parliamentary inquiry into wireless technologies, executives damned 802.11 with faint praise, acknowledging its potential but relegating the technology to the cafi and other hot spots.

But there's no getting around the fact that falling equipment prices and the availability of free spectrum is encouraging upstarts to break into what is, for all intents and purposes, a monopoly broadband market in Australia. There is a whiff of those heady days of the early Internet era, when upstarts like took on the established order. While Telstra is in no danger of being "Amazoned," there's also no doubt that something big is in the air.

Reprinted from

* NOTE: Last chance to register for the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Australia 2002 is THIS Thursday and Friday.

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