Setting Up a Real World Hotspot
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Are you thinking about putting up your first hotspot? If so, you're probably working hard to learn the basics of the business and technology. You're reading, talking to vendors and striving to learn all you can about this exploding opportunity. Still, nothing answers questions like real world results. So it makes sense to look at an actual first time hotspot deployment.
The Value of Planning
When Miami-based Smartwires began to plan its business launch, hotspots were far from its mind. The company intended to launch a citywide wireless ISP (WISP) in another town.
"We hired an experienced consultant to help us plan a wireless ISP," said Abowa Ghansah, CEO of Smartwires. "After looking at out situation and business needs, he pretty quickly suggested we look at hotspots instead."
Ghansah says that the financial model for hotspots is easier for a small company to justify -- outdoor fixed wireless requires more capital. A hotspot model is more flexible, cheaper and far easier to deploy. However, you need many of the same WISP-type skills to be successful.
"The effort we put in learning how to deploy a WISP helped a lot when we began to look at hotspots," said Ghansah. "The wireless skills we picked up in researching that were invaluable. Our consultant also saved us a lot of time and money." Despite these savings, the company still spent adequate time planning its launch. After switching to a hotspot model, Smartwires' evaluation focused on technical options and target customers.
Frustration of the Learning Curve
Smartwires spent some time trying to re-invent the hotspot wheel. Ghansah says that most of the learning curve was in evaluating and rejecting do-it-yourself options. Billing in particular is extremely hard to do on your own.
Still there were other challenges. In order to gain experience with wireless installs the company offered to set up a client's building for wireless access. This took time and created problems but proved a great training ground.
"We had a chance to evaluate a lot of antenna designs and radio equipment," said Ghansah. "We learned an awful lot about how to position antennas to penetrate floors and deal with multi-story buildings. If we hadn't spent time studying WISP deployment, it would have been harder."
Pitching the Venue
With a successful install under its belt, Smartwires was ready to sign up a customer. However, the real world intruded again. "The first cafi we approached for service was already a "hotspot" in the community," said Ghansah. "They couldn't imagine why we thought that they would want customers to stay and surf the Internet. They already had full tables and a line out the door."
Ghansah advises that you spend some time studying which customers really need your service, and then tailor your sales pitch to their needs. The upshot is that venues needing more traffic or that need or want customers to stay longer will be most interested. These venues see hotspots as a selling point to their customers. Smartwires' first customer turned out to be a Pakmail store that had requests for Internet access.
Choosing the Technology
They had a venue, but there was one final hurdle before the company could deploy, however. "We looked at trying to do our own ISP server and billing system," said Adlai Frater, CTO of Smartwires. "We spent an awful lot of time with that. Finally, with some advice from our consultant, we decided to work with an aggregator partner."
Ghansah says that once that choice was made, evaluating and picking a partner and deploying only took a couple of weeks. The company looked at gateway boxes from Pronto Networks and NetNearU. Both offered standardized, easy setup options along with great billing, authorization and co-branding programs. Smartwires eventually chose the NetNearU system because it felt it offered more flexibility in radio and antenna choice.
Ghansah says that doing a site survey after the DSL connection is installed is a good idea.
"We didn't do a site survey before installation and discovered that the DSL router jacks were full," said Ghansah. "We needed a couple of hubs and tracking it all down eventually took two to three days to finish the install. We could have finished the first day if we were prepared."
Despite this hiccup, the installation went smoothly. Even without a hub Smartwires managed to provide a workaround for the first day.
It's important to manage a venue customer's expectations about customer growth. Focus the venue on the value of differentiating its service with a unique hotspot offering. Of course, if a venue fails it's awfully easy to move the hotspot box to another location.
"It helps if you mention Starbucks is doing this in the sales pitch," Ghansah said.
Smartwires says its first customer is thrilled with the service and has already referred Smartwires to two other similar stores.
Ghansah says that flexible pricing plans are helpful to attract the brief casual user as well as regular subscriber. Tailor the price plan to the venue. Pre-paid cards are great for the venue to sell to cash customers. Per minute plans are great for venues where clients may just check e-mail quickly.
Smartwires evolved flexible partnership and revenue share plans for its venue partners. The idea is to find a workable solution for any interested location.
Smartwires' future plans prove how creative hotspot deployments can be. The company is designing -- with help from NetNearU -- a multi-dwelling-unit (MDU) broadband service. By leveraging NetNearU's billing and authentication with common free e-mail, the company is close to lighting-up several apartment complexes with hotspot service. By creating flexible "household" subscription plans, Smartwires is becoming a fixed wireless ISP without servers, using DSL or T-1 bandwidth to feed the locations.
The lessons are clear. Setting up your first hotspot requires some sweat equity. It also pays to have good advice and to think practically about what your customers really need. Industry vendors and consultants have proven solutions. Any company with some determination that is willing to put in a little effort can become a successful hotspot provider.
Tim Sanders is founder of The Final Mile, a fixed wireless consulting group. His experience was gained running a multi-state fixed wireless ISP. He can be reached at www.thefinalmile.net.
Want to set up your own hotspot? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our sessions will cover "Hardware & Back-End Systems for Instant Hotspots."