RealTime IT News

FastKat 1, Goliath 0

The guys at FastKat Wireless of Roseville, Calif., like to see themselves as modern-day Davids battling the telecom industry Goliaths, and winning. Their story of adventures in WISPland could be inspiration to others who find themselves in the same fix.

In just a few short months, FastKat's original two partners -- president Eric Fine and vice president Chris Dunwoody -- went from being a couple of guys ticked off that they couldn't get broadband Internet access in their new neighborhood to being the owners of a successful, fast-growing wireless ISP with almost 150 customers.

They took that journey after they realized nobody else was going to bring broadband access to Diamond Creek, the two-year-old subdivision where they bought new homes in 2001. Fine and Dunwoody raised a little over $100,000 from friends, neighbors and family to fund the start-up and launched service in October 2002.

"More than [the money], it was a lot of pain, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears," Fine says only half joking.

The story starts with a betrayal. When Fine and Dunwoody, and hundreds of other Diamond Creek residents, were house hunting 18 months ago, they were impressed by the spacious new homes in the subdivision and by the assurances from the developer's sales reps that Diamond Creek would have all the modern conveniences, including broadband access to the Internet.

For Dunwoody and others in this community, which is 15 miles east of Sacramento and 130 miles east of Silicon Valley, broadband access was crucial. It meant they could telecommute to high-tech jobs in the Bay Area. Without it, they would have to commute, or sell and move.

It turned out the developers were talking through their hats -- or outright lying about broadband access. "It was never written down as a promise or anything, but lots of folks bought with the understanding that they would have it," Dunwoody says.

In fact, neither SBC PacBell, the incumbent phone company, nor AT&T/Comcast, the nearest TV cable provider, were close to being ready to bring broadband service to Diamond Creek -- as Fine discovered when he made a few phone calls after moving in.

The PacBell central office (CO) was too far away for DSL to work and the area cable plant hadn't been upgraded for data services. Estimates of when either might be ready to offer broadband service ranged from three years to who knows.

Roseville Telephone, owned by SureWest Communications, could have offered DSL service from a CO not 300 yards from the edge of the subdivision -- but it was prevented from doing so by LATA (Local Access and Transport Area) agreements that barred it from operating in PacBell territory.

Dunwoody eventually found QuickNet, a good but short-lived WISP in Sacramento, and was able to get wireless service for a time. With his help, the company made a big pitch to serve Diamond Creek and signed up 50 other customers -- but shortly afterward was acquired by SureWest and shut down. "We were fed up," Dunwoody says.

Still, the experience with QuickNet proved one thing -- wireless was a viable option. Dunwoody and Fine, who have wireline networking backgrounds with PacBell, started holding neighborhood meetings to gauge interest in a home-grown solution, researching wireless technologies and building a business plan.

"We started writing the business plan and running the company because it was fun," Fine says. "We were enjoying effecting people's lives -- like Steve Duncan, a neighbor who does software support. He was going to have to move to Stockton [closer to Silicon Valley], but now he didn't have to move. We had 100 people signed up before we even built the network."

FastKat requested proposals from a bunch of wireless systems integrators and settled on Slingshot Wireless Communications LLC of Woodlawn, Ill. Slingshot agreed to build the network and even bear some of the equipment leasing costs in return for 5 percent of the revenues. It wasn't the last innovative "contra" deal FastKat would cook up.

With Slingshot's backing, FastKat was able to secure a 15-year lease on a prime spot near the top of SureWest's 300-foot radio tower just three miles from Diamond Creek. "We're positioned very well," Fine says. The three antennas on the tower give FastKat coverage for a minimum five mile radius.

"So now SureWest technically is servicing PacBell customers through us," Fine notes. "They like us a lot." SureWest likes FastKat so much, in fact, that it's even helping to market the service now in parts of its territory where it can't offer broadband any other way.

FastKat's routers and gateway are co-located at a SureWest facility connected by OC-48 (2.488-Gbps) lines to the Internet backbone. The POP is linked by fiber to the tower where FastKat maintains a bandwidth control unit.

"It's an awesome connection," Fine says.

The company pays for a dedicated 2Mbps, which can spike to 10Mbps at peak traffic times. One result is no later-afternoon slow-downs for residential customers, who as of June 1 will pay $49.95 per month for 600 Kbps.

On the tower, FastKat's 5.8 GHz radios -- supplied by San Diego-based Trango Systems -- shoot direct to business customers and to distribution hubs on the roofs of three of the partners' homes. (There are two other partners: CFO John Weatherford and CTO Ryan Fogleman.)

From the distribution hubs, the signals are relayed over 2.4 GHz spectrum mainly using fixed wireless access gear from Zcomax Technologies of Denville N.J.

FastKat likes the innovative Zcomax customer premises equipment (CPE) because it's an all-in-one, enclosed flat-panel device that sits on the subscriber's roof with an Ethernet cable coming out of it. The device uses Power over Ethernet (PoE) -- the Ethernet cable goes from the Zcomax rooftop device to a wall socket device inside and then to a network interface card (NIC) or router.

Fine is careful to make the distinction between this kind of non-Wi-Fi fixed wireless access equipment and the inside LAN technology the company tried to use at first. "We have been through hell trying to make consumer-grade garbage work," he says. "We eventually got it to work, but it's nothing we'd ever do again."

FastKat is using some 2.4-GHz gear from Young Design Inc. (YDI Wireless) of Sunnyvale, Calif., as well. It's also using YDI security -- 64-bit Blowfish encryption running at Layer 2. The network is protected at the MAC address level. Only registered MAC addresses can log on, and if a MAC address is cloned, both are shut down.

The company has yet to run an ad for its service, but the word is spreading. FastKat covers not just Diamond Creek and Roseville, but also nearby Rocklin and now Lincoln. In the case of Lincoln, it worked out a deal with the city under which FastKat gets free access to a water tower in return for $1 per month for each Lincoln FastKat subscriber signed.

The latest FatKat initiative is free hotspots. Two car dealerships, a restaurant, a cafe and a "fuel plaza" in and around Roseville buy bulk service from FastKat and give it away free to anyone. FastKat will also establish hotspots just for subscribers -- in neighborhood parks, for example. The network architecture also means roaming customers can get access in many parts of the coverage area when they're away from home.

Even if it hasn't actually slain any giants yet, FastKat is definitely David-like in its success. In fact, if it keeps growing, it could turn into a mini-Goliath itself. Fine says he expects to reach 500 customers within a year. The company will break even before then, Dunwoody says.

Not bad for a couple of guys who were ticked off because they couldn't get broadband Internet service.

802.11 Planet Conference Ready to get your own Wireless ISP service off the ground? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, June 25 - 27, 2003 at the World Trade Center Boston in Boston, MA. Get started with our two part panel entitled Practicum: Building a Successful Wireless ISP.