Helio Branches into Wireless Broadband

By Eric Griffith

October 04, 2006

The hip phone provider plans to get its young customers' laptops online using rented 3G and Wi-Fi networks.

Helio has barely been serving its phone customers for six months after a soft launch in May 2006, but already the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) is expanding its range of services to include wireless broadband for laptops.

As an MVNO, Helio rents space on the Sprint Nextel cellular network, but as Rick Heineman, the company's director of communications, puts it, "everything else is, top to bottom, ours." They company differentiates itself by marketing to a young target audience, Heineman says, of "early adopters that are fashion-forward — those who want hot devices." To do that, the company has exclusive deals on phones (including the $225 Hero and the $220 KickFlip). The phones also use the Sprint EV-DO 3G network found in 220 cities in the United States to get extra speed for delivering multimedia content.

Rather than let all that EV-DO bandwidth be used just by phones, the company is launching Helio Hybrid, a service for laptops that couples access to the Sprint EV-DO with access to the 55,000 hotspots found worldwide on the Boingo Wireless virtual network. By installing the Helio Hybrid card (a rebranded Sierra Wireless EV-DO card) and Hybrid Connector software (made by Tatara Systems to take advantage of Tatara's Mobile Services Convergence Platform on the back-end), laptop users can switch between the EV-DO network and Wi-Fi hotspots without losing any work.

Helio Hybrid won't require much in the way of user intervention on the laptops. Once installed, the software will hold profiles on hotspots you have access to (not just Boingo locations). Once the card and the Wi-Fi accounts are provisioned, users don't have to enter credentials again. Users get a single bill if they also have a Helio phone account. Helio Hybrid costs $85 per month with a two-year commitment. Currently, there's no discount for existing "Helions," but bundled prices are likely in the future (base voice service is $65 per month for 500 minutes). For now, however, the Hybrid EV-DO card is free for subscribers.

Speaking of bundles, is there a possible future for low-cost voice over those hotspots?

"This is a laptop product," says Greg Hayes, head of convergence at Helio. "The software works on the Windows OS. We have plans to expand onto other laptops in the future."

However, that doesn't mean Helio doesn't see the writing on the wall from technologies like Unified Mobile Access (UMA) that allow seamless hand-off between Wi-Fi and cellular technologies for voice as well. "You can view the Hybrid as our beachhead into the convergence arena," says Hayes.

Considering the nationwide services and the fact that Helio doesn't have to build its own network, Helio's planning a big splash in covergence, but admits the major factor holding things up will be getting the right handsets. Hayes says it’s a factor for all the mobile carriers, not just Helio, but that Helio's desire to have unique, exclusive handsets could slow them down further.

Originally published on .

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