RealTime IT News

Unwiring an Architectural Landmark

If you're a small independent hotspot network operator looking for a successful model to copy, you could do worse than Tadaa Wireless, a regional player in Montreal, Canada.

In March, Tadaa made news when it launched a breakthrough project to provide wireless service at Westmount Square, a landmark residential-business-retail complex in the city. It was already operating a substantial hotspot network with 45 coffee shop and hotel sites in Montreal, and unlike many Canadian hotspot operators, has charged for service almost from the beginning.

Company CEO and co-founder Daniel Yeboah told us last year that Tadaa had about 1,000 monthly subscribers and 1,000 to 2,000 casual users per month. The subscriber base has grown since then by about 25 percent, he says -- including a significant spurt in the last couple of months.

"As people become better educated about Wi-Fi, as they come to understand it more, they're signing up," he says. "It's quite encouraging."

Yeboah also claims Tadaa is only a month or so from being operationally profitable. He attributes the relatively quick success -- the company launched three years ago -- to its strategy of not deploying hotspots merely to increase foot print but insisting that each be a good revenue producer in its own right. He also notes that his company remains a "lean, mean operation."

It helps that Tadaa has solid backing from DVC Capital, a local venture capital firm. Yeboah says the only reason he would look beyond DVC for additional funding is if a major business opportunity came along that was too big to finance from within. Westmount Square apparently did not require any outside funding.

The complex includes 225 luxury condos in one tower, two business towers, plus high-end fashion retail in an underground mall. Built in 1969 and now considered an architectural landmark, it sits between downtown and the predominantly English-speaking enclave of Westmount in the west end of this bilingual city of two million.

Groupe Cogir, a major residential and business property owner in Montreal, and Groupe EL-AD Canada co-own Westmount Square. They were in the process of multi-million-dollar renovations at the complex when Tadaa approached them with the idea of doing something that, as Yeboah says, "would make the property unique in North America."

Tadaa is providing Wi-Fi-based high-speed Internet service to Westmount Square residents and businesses using a network of access points and other infrastructure equipment from Vivato. The fixed-access services and the large scale of the network are a first for Tadaa, which had previously only operated traditional single-site hotspots.

The Westmount Square project includes a 1.5-mile-radius (line of sight) hotzone around the property that provides tenants with access outside on the street and in nearby parks and buildings. The hotzone is available to existing Tadaa hotspot subscribers as well.

Residential subscribers pay about $23 a month for unlimited access. That's for an individual computer, though, not per household. Subscribers experience data speeds of 1 to 1.5 Mbps. Tadaa says the network can support up to 1,500 concurrent users.

Business subscribers pay $75 a month and up, plus implementation and consulting fees. Tadaa can provide simple access to the Internet for a LAN or provision an office wireless LAN using only the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure, which provides blanket coverage within the complex.

Security was a key concern for business customers. Where Tadaa is providing office WLANs, users in each company log on to an SSID (service set identifier) dedicated to that customer. All traffic is carried from end-to-end on virtual private network (VPN) tunnels.

"If you had an office with ten people, for example, you could have a remote host, with no servers present in the office and everyone could work wirelessly in a secure environment," Yeboah says. "The entire LAN is totally secured from residential and public users."

He claims that "quite a few" tenants, business and residential, have converted to the Tadaa service, but others are waiting for existing contracts to run out before switching.

Westmount Square's owners will use the network for administrative applications such as inventory management and security systems for the complex, including alarm systems and video surveillance. Yeboah envisions it being used in future for voice over IP (VoIP), wireless bank and credit card machines and other applications.

Summit Wireless, a subsidiary of Summit Technologies, a local systems integrator, designed the network and selected Vivato as the technology provider. Tadaa's network installer of choice for several months, Summit is now a partner -- Tadaa liked the company so much it invested in it.

The unique aesthetics and architectural design of the Westmount Square complex made designing and implementing a wireless network more complicated. Summit selected Vivato base stations because they meant installing less equipment and wiring.

"Our initial site surveys indicated that more than 160 traditional access points would be required to provide Wi-Fi throughout these three skyscrapers, with independent wiring to each device," says Summit chief technology officer (CTO) Johannes Jobst.

"Not only was this prohibitive from a cost standpoint, but it was impossible if we wanted to preserve the integrity and aesthetics of historic Westmount Square. Vivato was the only viable solution."

Summit only needed three Vivato VP1200 Wi-Fi Base Stations and six VivatoVA 2200 Wi-Fi AP/Bridges to provide the coverage needed. The extended range afforded by Vivato's smart antenna technology allowed network designers to take an unconventional "inside-out" approach. It installed the Vivato equipment inside a window of one building to provide Wi-Fi to an adjacent building, thus preserving structural and design aesthetics.

Tadaa, meanwhile, is on a roll. It has 45 additional hotspot sites under contract and expects to have 100 in total up and running by the end of the year. In the wake of publicity around the Westmount Square project, it received "quite a few calls" from other building owners.

"We expect to have another four to five [similar] locations up and running in the next six to nine months," Yeboah says.

Tadaa appears to be doing something right, but what is it? Certainly there are other "lean, mean" hotspot network operators out there. Certainly there are others that, like Tadaa, are well backed and have concentrated almost exclusively on one city.

Yeboah says part of it is ensuring that each hotspot delivers a decent revenue stream rather than just expanding the coverage foot print for the sake of a foot print. Other small operators, though, may envy the kind of "restraint" Tadaa has supposedly shown in this regard. Most are a still long way from having 45 sites in one city.