By Gerry Blackwell
June 22, 2006
The guy who brought broadband to Tonga is ready to revolutionize the U.S. market by offering very, very fast residential service.
Wi-Fi activist and gadfly Dewayne Hendricks, CEO of The Dandin Group Inc., a San Francisco Bay area WISP and consulting/systems integration firm, says the telecom world is “on the cusp of a revolution.” It just doesn’t know it yet.
The sudden explosion of municipal Wi-Fi is one harbinger of the changes to come, but Hendricks is more excited about the emergence of countywide Wi-Fi. His company is deeply involved in one of several projects around the country, this one in Sandoval County in New Mexico, where the government has launched a $9-million, five-year program to deliver up to 1 gigabit per second to every citizen—wirelessly.
Can’t be done, you say? Don’t tell Hendricks. He’s fed up with naysayers—”experts, quote, unquote,” as he puts it—who don’t know what they’re talking about. It can be and will be done, he says. The critics who say otherwise “have no standing” because they’re not out there working with the technology in the field and deploying the way he is.
When “so-called” experts say congestion and interference problems in unlicensed spectrum will prevent Wi-Fi networks from scaling up successfully, especially in urban areas, he points to the Bay area. Dandin was a charter member of the Wireless Broadband Access Network Coordination (BANC) organization, which now numbers 50 WISPs cooperating to prevent congestion and interference. “And we haven’t had any kind of congestion meltdown yet,” he notes.
He also points to the long-running success of the Wi-Fi network covering 600-square-mile Yakima County in Washington (which was begun as far back as 1998) and to more recent initiatives in Michigan, including in Oakland County. Oakland, just north of Detroit, went live in January with a Wi-Fi network that will deliver free internet access everywhere in the 910 square mile region by the end of 2007.
“And if we can do counties,” Hendricks says, “we’re talking about whole states next. In fact, Rhode Island recently announced they would put a [Wi-Fi] cloud over their state—albeit it’s a small state. But if you look out two years, Wi-Fi will be everywhere, and it’s going to change the competitive map tremendously.”
Hendricks has been pushing the wireless envelope and challenging powers that be for well over a decade. He trained as a psychologist but was always a radio guy by avocation—he had his ham radio license before he was 13. He worked as a self-educated communications technologist in academia and also did stints at Amdahl, IBM, and Apple before starting his first company (to do data over ham radio) in the early 1990s.
Despite being critical of the FCC, especially in recent years, Hendricks has sat on the commission’s Technology Advisory Council since 1998 alongside a who’s who of the telecom industry. “The reason I’m on that committee is that I want to try and work on the inside, but stay on outside,” he says. He also sits on the board of directors of FirstMile.US, an industry group promoting the idea of “big broadband everywhere.”
Hendricks is nothing if not eccentric. His company was named after a character in a series of children’s books and it has a dolphin, named Dani, for a mascot. Dandin operates a small WISP covering the South Bay area from San Mateo to Los Gatos, with about 50 business customers. Through a subsidiary, it also operates a wireless network in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. Dandin is a licensed carrier there.
The Tongan adventure, which began in 1998, seems typically quixotic. In a country with a population of about 100,000, Hendricks’ company has two competitors, one of them headed by the country’s crown prince. “When you do these things,” he says philosophically, “you have to stick with it for years. It may not make money in certain years, but we’ve been able to hang on in that market and survive. It is what it is.”
Hendricks clearly has an affinity for out-of-the-way places, and for the dispossessed. He helped build a state-of-the-art wireless access network on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reserve 125 miles from Minot, North Dakota. He has also worked on wireless projects in Mongolia. When I ask if this is the expression of some social philosophy he espouses, Hendricks says, “That too, but I have to run a business”, and slides adroitly away from the topic of his personal motivations.