Sputnik's Temporary WLANs
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With the deployment of Wi-Fi networks now a routine matter, attention has turned to network operation. Those who offer Wi-Fi services to end users are increasingly concerned about minimizing muss and fuss on the back end, which can erode their bottom lines if left unchecked.
But what about operating a network that you don't want to install on a long-term basis? We're talking specifically about the management of temporary networks, the kind that come into being just long enough to deliver Wi-Fi access at corporate events, trade shows, conventions and the like.
Founded in 2002, San Francisco-based Sputnik still is a small shop, with fewer than 10 people on the payroll. But CEO David LaDuke has big ideas about the need for network management tools in temporary networks.
"We do a lot of work behind the scenes to make it really easy for the people operating these networks to implement whatever business model they want to use," LaDuke said. "We think the market for that is vast."
Sputnik's product manages more than just the standard network nuts and bolts like authentication and user activity reports. In an effort to relieve network operators from a larger burden, the company has augmented its offerings with diverse content management tools.
In June, for example, Sputnik's software delivered Internet access to Supernova 2005, a conference focused on the decentralization of computing, communications and digital media. In addition to the basics, Sputnik outfitted the network with a selection of online community tools. Some attendees posted blogs from the event, including a video-based conference blog, while others played Second Life, a massive multiplayer online game.
Along these lines, Sputnik also manages branding on the back-end, organizing a customized splash page, audience polling tools and registration tools. LaDuke sees in this mix a way to help network operators add value to their offerings without straining their in-house resources. "It gives you a lot of ways to guide the online experience without making it difficult for the end user," he said.
Sputnik's control center license runs about $600. Analysts say the product could find a ready market if buyers and users can make the numbers work—"for example, if they find a way for the conference centers to pass on the charges easily to the 'buyer' of the space for those given days," said Julie Ask, senior analyst with Jupiter Research.
Still, the financial equation is by no means obvious. Network management services do not generate up-front revenue, and while there may be back-end savings in terms of network operations, those savings do not always appear clearly in the bottom line. Until market demand reaches critical mass, some operators may be content to leave well enough alone.
But demand may soon achieve a pressure point. With Wi-Fi nearly ubiquitous at conferences and meetings, some observers say it is only a matter of time before users start demanding greater ease of use and functionality in their Wi-Fi experience. At that point, the need for sophisticated management tools could become a driving business issue.
Sputnik is already seeing signs of such demand. Since introducing its product, the company has worked with a range of venues, including the Springboard Enterprises Venture Capital Forum, Silicon Valley 2004, the Syllabus 2004 Conference on technology for higher education, the League of Innovation Conference on Information Technology 2004, and the Stanford Law School Directors' College 2005, among others.
These venues all share in common a need to manage back-end services—especially access control—on a temporary basis. "You are dealing with a transient population, LaDuke said. This thing is only happening for a couple of days, and while you want to grant access to attendees, you don't want to grant open access to everyone in the hotel.
As he looks to expand his market share, LaDuke envisions moving beyond temporary networks to expand into places where the network may be permanent but the users themselves are temporary.
"There are places where people wait, in doctors' offices, small professional offices, legal offices and advertising agencies, where they have clients coming in but they don't want to put them onto the Wi-Fi network in the same way that employees get on the network," LaDuke said. In those settings, operators might appreciate "not having to do anything special to create the policies that apply to the different kinds of users."