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Past Masters of Wireless

Many small and even not so small businesses looking at installing 802.11 wireless local area networks imagine they can do it all themselves. Hey, it's easy. Just go down to Circuit City and pick up what you need, right?

The truth is, sometimes it is easy, and they can do it themselves, but most find there is a lot more to deploying a WLAN than plugging in an access point and sticking PC cards in a few laptops. When that happens, who do you call?

Don't bother searching in the Yellow Pages, but more and more WLAN consulting firms are springing up. Some may even have more than a few months experience. In this first in an occasional series on WLAN consultants, we introduce you to one of the biggest, Signa Services of Erlanger, KY.

"We've been deploying WLANs for over 20 years, starting with narrow band, moving into pre-standard proprietary 2.4 GHz and then 802.11," says Signa Services vice president and general manager Joe Musgrave.

The current boom in the WLAN market may date back only a few years, from about the time 802.11 emerged from the committee rooms of the IEEE, but as Musgrave points out, WLANs go back much further.

Most of the action in the beginning was industrial vertical and horizontal applications -- plants, warehouses, maritime facilities, etc., where mobile workers carried (and still carry) handheld devices connected over WLANs to a central computer system.

A significant chunk of Signa's business still comes from those markets, but in the past few years WLANs have been "moving into the carpeted spaces," as Musgrave puts it -- and Signa Services has been moving with them.

In point of fact, the company has only been Signa Services for a little over a year. It started life almost 30 years ago as Teklogix, which pioneered the enterprise mobile computing solutions market in Toronto, Canada. In 2000, UK-based Psion PLC, makers of the first PDA, bought Teklogix, which became Psion Teklogix.

Psion Teklogix has a full line of 802.11-compliant infrastructure and terminal equipment, which it still sells. The core group that became Signa Services was Psion Teklogix's professional services group.

"Signa Services is basically a re-branding of our professional services operation," Musgrave explains. "At the time we launched it, though, we made two very important decisions.

"First, we would be completely hardware agnostic. This would not be just an extension of [Psion Teklogix] hardware sales. We would sell and work with Cisco, Lucent, etc.

"And second, we would work through alliance partners -- the Ciscos and Dells of the world... We would be service providers."

The business model allowed Signa to increase its reach dramatically. While it may sound as if it's vulnerable to conflict of interest strains -- Cisco, for example, is a direct competitor of Psion's for hardware sales -- it's not, Musgrave says.

"The first time we walk into a Cisco opportunity and turn it into a Psion opportunity, that's the last time we work with Cisco," he points out. "So the integrity is self-imposed."

Signa Services employs about 150 "professionals" -- 85 in North America, 65 in Europe -- spread over 20 offices worldwide. It mainly services clients in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Today it's about a $10-million business, Musgrave says.

The firm offers a full range of site survey, design, implementation and network management services, using 802.11, Bluetooth and proprietary wireless technologies. It does sometimes work directly with end customers and can offer what Musgrave terms a "cradle-to-grave" service -- design, implementation, hardware provisioning, remote monitoring and management, including user support.

Teklogix and Psion never worked through value added resellers (VARs), Musgrave notes. The professional services group that became Signa did all Psion's implementation work. "Because of that," he says, "we really understand the technical nuances of deploying wireless LANs -- coverage, throughput, security. Those are areas that have always been our core competency."

Working on big industrial projects, such as implementing WLANs in about 200 maritime ports around the world, was particularly valuable experience. "We learned a lot about attenuation and reflection and all the things you need to be aware of [in offices and public access sites] -- things like antenna technology -- that too often [WLAN implementers] aren't aware of," Musgrave says.

The firm maintains labs where it tests new technologies. Even before security concerns triggered by the compromising of WEP became a major issue in the WLAN market, Signa had begun a program of research and testing of hardware and software security solutions. Today, this is one of the firm's key areas of expertise.

"We can look at each individual case and choose the best-of-class solution that suits the customer's needs," Musgrave says. "We also do security audits."

Security is unquestionably the number one concern of most customers, he says. Another big one, though, is obsolescence of WLAN products. Customers want to know what will happen if they deploy 802.11b in light of new 802.11a and anticipated 11g equipment. Signa Services has done extensive research here as well.

"We try to be very pragmatic," Musgrave says. "But in most cases we believe that 802.11b has enough bandwidth for what almost anyone needs. If the company is working with a lot of multimedia files we may recommend they use 11a. But the two use different spectrum bands, so they can be complementary." The impact of 802.11g, he adds, is "still undetermined."

Signa Services has developed a number of tools to help streamline design and implementation -- and differentiate it from competitors. For example, it can do preliminary but very detailed site surveys automatically from AudoCAD or Visio architectural drawings of the facility where the WLAN is to be installed.

It has also developed a costing algorithm that allows it to generate rough cost estimates -- accurate to within plus-or-minus-20-percent -- based on very preliminary information. This is important because costing is probably the third biggest concern of prospective customers, Musgrave says.

Signa Services is differentiating itself against big IT consulting shops like IBM Global Services and Hewlett Packard's professional services group -- two competitors it frequently encounters when bidding on jobs -- by staying focused on wireless networking.

"We think it's in our best interests to stay focused on our core competency. Our aim is keep pace with evolutions in the technology and understand our customers' changing requirements," Musgrave says.

The firm is differentiating itself against smaller competitors -- the legions of Cisco VARs and small regional WLAN systems integrators -- by focusing on bigger projects.

"If you look at the SOHO and small-medium-enterprise (SME) markets, we don't add a lot of value there," Musgrave says. "But if you go to an enterprise with one large facility they want to cover or a campus that needs building-to-building bridging and ubiquitous coverage, that's where we can add lots of value."

The projects the firm is working on now tend to be in the $25,000-to-$750,000 range, but they will get bigger. Many that Signa Services is bidding on today are priced in the millions or tens of millions of dollars. While there have been delays in many big projects because of the sluggish economy and security concerns, Musgrave expects some to start coming through in the next 30 to 90 days.

Two trends are moving the industry and the firm towards bigger WLAN projects. More and more large corporations are deciding to deploy wireless LANs in all their facilities -- which sometimes number in the hundreds. The return on the investment for big enterprises is "mind-boggling." Pay-back periods are sometimes measured in weeks, he says.

The second driver is that a number of large-scale roll-outs of public access networks comprising hundreds or even thousands of hotspots are imminent. The two trends will feed off each other as the growing number of enterprise users begin to look for wireless access to corporate networks when they're away from office or home, Musgrave says.

Signa Services, he believes, is perfectly positioned to cash in by offering services to both public access players and big enterprises. It has depth of skill and experience, second to none, and the credentials. It has worked for a "who's who" of Fortune 1000 companies, Musgrave says.

He doesn't know exactly how big the opportunity is, but he points out that last year for the first time, spending on information technology services matched or exceeded spending on hardware and software. That puts the WLAN consulting opportunity in the hundreds of millions -- if not billions -- of dollars.

Which means there should be lots of room for other players in this market -- some of whom we'll meet in the weeks ahead.