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The Trials and Tribulations of RV Park Wi-Fi

A good day is when you have the right market, the right technology, and a partner with the muscle and the know-how to help bring the two together.

Alan Kobran, the would-be king of the wireless recreational vehicle (RV) park, is having a very good day.

First there's the market, namely the drivers and passengers who spend all or part of the year in recreational vehicles. "There are one million people in the U.S. who live in their RVs full time," said Kobran, president and CEO of wireless service provider LinkSpot. "These people are always on the road, and Internet access for them is as important as it is for anyone else in their homes."

Then there's the technology, which in RV parks is usually limited to a phone in the lodge, or maybe a payphone outside the main gate. Clearly something more is needed, "but digging up these parks and putting in a wired solution is not economical, and in some cases it is virtually impossible," said Kobran. "These parks change hands all the time, so that by the time a park is 20 years old, it might have been sold three or four times. Now nobody knows what is in the ground."

Kobran sees Wi-Fi as the natural solution. (But that's why we're here, isn't it?)

As for the partner, Kobran has turned to Transaction Network Services (TNS) for help in speeding the pace of deployment in RV parks.

TNS has a powerful track record, in that its telecommunications network today carries the processing for some 20 million credit cards transactions a day. With all its own switches and other network devices, the firm says it can handle the infrastructure end of the RV park rollout with greater efficiency than LinkSpot might have done on its own.

"We do the procurement, the warehousing, the returns, the shipping, so LinkSpot does not have to do those things themselves," said Director of Business Development Bill Thornton. "Because of the nature of our business, we buy a lot of data services from a lot of carriers, so we already have people who negotiate these things. We have the volume purchasing power. We have these economies of scale."

LinkSpot has thus far brought Wi-Fi to some 30 RV parks, and the firm expects to have 100 parks online by year's end. There are 16,000 RV parks nationwide and Kobran would like to expand rapidly throughout the market, but he is the first to admit that his firm does not have the muscle needed to make it happen. "It's a lot harder to wire a 200-acre RV park than it is to do your local Starbucks," he said. That's why he is relying on the expertise of TNS.

Wireless experts say Kobran may be onto a good thing.

"It seems to make a lot of sense," said Amy Cravens, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR. In the typical RV user, "you are looking at someone who has significant disposal income, and who has things they need to keep in touch with, whether it's monitoring their finances or keeping in touch with family. So it seems like a good target market."

Once a park is Wi-Fi enabled, Kobran expects to be able to charge users $5.95 a day, $25 a week or $50 a month for Wi-Fi access. But he acknowledges there are challenges still to be overcome.

First off, there is the telecom hurdle. "I used to think you could get a T-1 anyplace, but in reality you can't always do that," said Kobran. Thus there will be market limitations that are beyond his control.

Then there is the economic model. Some RV parks may have just a half a dozen spots for visitors, and it is not clear how an operator of such a park could see a return on investment, unless Wi-Fi were positioned not as a money-maker but rather as a competitive amenity.

Also, the target audience is not always tech savvy: Kobran says that only about half his target customers have Wi-Fi enabled machines. To overcome this hurdle, he is making loaner kits available to allow users to Wi-Fi enable their computers in parks where he has made Wi-Fi available. In this way, he hopes to build long-term interest among potential customers.

Finally, there is a certain amount of training that has to be done any time he brings wireless capabilities to a new park. Typically the front-desk staff will be responsible for selling the Wi-Fi amenity, "but a lot of these people do not work on computers," said Kobran. "If they wanted to be in technology, they wouldn't be working the front desk in an RV park."