EarthLink W-ISPers Into WLAN Maelstrom

By Gerry Blackwell

January 15, 2002

Actual services provided by BroadLink Communications for nation's fourth largest ISP in Atlanta test-market.

A recent launch of high-speed wireless Internet access service in Atlanta grabbed attention because the ISP in question happened to be EarthLink Inc. (www.earthlink.com).

According to recent data, EarthLink is the number four ISP in the country with 4.9 million subscribers. That it has entered the wireless access fray is significant.

But the company behind the EarthLink launch in Atlanta may be the more interesting story.

BroadLink Communications Inc. (www.broadlink.com) of Santa Rosa CA is building the Atlanta wireless network. It will own the network - and it is already making it available to other ISPs in the region for beta testing.

It's a business model the small company (26 employees) has already executed successfully in its northern California home base.

BroadLink has been up and running with commercial service since 2000 in Santa Rosa, a city of about 230,000 just north of San Francisco, and in nearby Stockton since early 2001.

It provides high-speed access on a wholesale basis to four or five, mostly small, regional ISPs, such as Sonic.net Inc. (www.sonic.net) and InReach Internet (www.inreach.com), and also provides back-up technical support.

"It's just like DSL, only we're not the phone company," says executive vice president, CTO and co-founder Tim McAllister.

"We're a wireless access provider. The whole idea of having multiple ISPs on a single fixed wireless network is key to our strategy. For users, it's transparent - they just see their ISP. Our part is to make sure the network works."

Across all three deployments (including Atlanta), and multiple ISPs, the company has a respectable but not overwhelming 1,000-plus subscribers.

McAllister says BroadLink has been working with 802.11b technology since 1995 and beta testing in Santa Rosa since 1996. That's a fair track record in this business, and while the company is still tiny and under-resourced, it is now beginning to leverage its hard-won experience.

EarthLink chose BroadLink because of the company's BrightEdge intelligent network interface technology.

The radio technology used is mostly Cisco Aironet, but BrightEdge CPE (customer premises equipment) also includes a custom edge device with a Pentium-class processor, 16 MB of RAM and 8 MB of flash memory.

BrightEdge was originally PC-based but later evolved into the current embedded device.

The technology is the result of "blood, sweat, toil and tears," McAllister says - then adds with typical candor, "Anything wrong that we could have done, we've done it - and had to fix it."

He doesn't really mean that BroadLink is mistake prone. The company was breaking new ground, so the only way it could learn was by trial and error. Everything it learned, it has incorporated into the BrightEdge technology.

"Scalability and security are our big advantages," McAllister says.

At the simplest level, BrightEdge solves fundamental Ethernet bandwidth allocation issues, preventing a bad radio card or heavy Napster or Morpheus user from monopolizing bandwidth in a wireless network segment.

It also solves security problems by implementing 128-bit enhanced WEP with dynamically updated encryption keys. The WEP keys reside in the CPE unit where they're inaccessible to the end user.

"With a wireless LAN," McAllister notes, "your baseline logic is that everyone on the network is friendly, an employee. So it's okay if they have access to the WEP key."

"But in a [non-BrightEdge] public network, those assumptions go out the window. If you've implemented WEP, the user still has access to the WEP key. He could use it to create another station and steal service or sniff traffic, breaching users' confidentiality."

McAllister says hackers are constantly trying to break BrightEdge's security, but none has succeeded so far in stealing service or compromising user data.

Almost as important as security, BrightEdge gives the network operator the ability to address individual end customers - to remotely update WEP keys, upgrade firmware or collect usage data to facilitate integration with back-end billing systems. This is not possible with standard Wi-Fi equipment.

"If it's just a small or regional ISP, you can buy any off-the-shelf [Wi-Fi equipment] and implement it with some success," McAllister says. "But when you're loading networks with hundreds or thousands of customers - as with EarthLink - you have to be able to provide management visibility."

It's true the BrightEdge technology adds some cost - total cost per subscriber is about $360 - but if it helps the ISP avoid customer service nightmares, which is what it's designed to do, it's well worth it, McAllister argues.

"All that back-end intelligence, you simply could not do on a PCMCIA Wi-Fi card," he says. "They're unscalable. We're scalable."

Another key advantage of current BrightEdge technology - and one reason the CPE is so inexpensive - is that it's built around 802.11b. BrightEdge is actually "radio agnostic," McAllister notes, but 802.11b radios and base band processors offer the "lowest price point" of any RF technology on the market.

And because it's standards-based, the Wi-Fi advantage will only increase, he points out. "Moore's law applies when you have standards-based technology. We don't have to do anything with the radio and our costs will drop. It's a huge benefit for anyone deploying 802.11."

BroadLink expects to get the BrightEdge cost per subscriber down below $300 by the end of this year. And it can leverage much of the work it has already done if - or more likely when - it decides to implement 802.11a and/or 802.11g

The EarthLink deployment in Atlanta, meanwhile, could be BroadLink's ticket to the big time. It has already built nine POPs and has three more underway, for a total of 12 by the end of January. The footprint will grow beyond that but already covers 500,000 people and about 60,000 households.

EarthLink is test marketing the service at an introductory price of $42.95 per month (regularly $49.95 per month) with the initial set-up, equipment and installation charges - normally $379 - waived.

The two companies have said they have plans to roll the wireless service out across the country and internationally, although McAllister says those plans are still very much under development.

For its part, BroadLink is frustrated for now by its size and relative lack of resources. The EarthLink relationship is monopolizing most of those resources. But it is by no means an exclusive relationship.

BroadLink has received lots of expressions of interest from ISPs in the U.S. and internationally, McAllister says. If the company gets enough interest in a given market, it will consider establishing a network there.

But it also sees the opportunity to sell turnkey BrightEdge systems to ISPs. It just hasn't quite got around to product-izing the technology yet.

As McAllister says, "You can only do so much in a day."



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