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RealTime IT News

Flying High in Sunny Spain

SkyPilot Networks, a purveyor of Wi-Fi-based mesh network technology for rural access and now muni Wi-Fi, is waging a guerilla marketing war against its mostly bigger, better-resourced competitors by recruiting ISP customers to distribute, support and champion its wares. The latest example is Costa del Sol Online SL (CDSO), a network operator in Malaga, Spain that has transformed itself into a system integrator.

“This is what is happening in many instances,” says Brian Jenkins, SkyPilot’s Vice President of Product Management. “A lot of new integrators in this market are former ISPs like CDSO who can leverage their expertise to resell and support the products.”

CDSO is distributing the SkyPilot products elsewhere in Spain and in the Netherlands, helping other operators replicate the modest success its network services arm, BambooTelecom, has achieved in Malaga. The company has ambitions to expand across western Europe, says co-owner and Chief Technical Director Alain Duzant.

Duzant, a Caribbean-born, U.S.-educated and multilingual entrepreneur, has wide business interests. His empire includes the Spanish distributorship for a Canadian manufacturer of prefab timber homes, and a real estate arm that sells building sites for those homes. The real estate and housing ventures are completely separate from CDSO, Duzant hastens to point out.

CDSO started by building access networks around Malaga, the major city on Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast, heart of the Costa del Sol, a tourist magnet for sun-starved northern Europeans. The networks – three of them in different exurban or rural areas around the city, including an industrial park – have been up and running for about 10 months and taking commercial customers since November. The company had more than 1,000 subscribers as of early March, and was adding three to five new customers a day.

Subscribers pay anywhere from €30 for 256 Kbps service to €140 for 2 Mbps. About 90 percent also take BambooTelecom’s VoIP service. Many people in rural Spain don’t have access to anything other than cellular service from incumbent Telefónica, Duzant explains – and it charges €0.15 per minute. Bamboo customers pay €10 a month for a local phone number and €0.02 per minute to call anywhere in Spain. No wonder they’re signing up for the service.

The only other competitors, Duzant says, are fixed wireless players using older 3.5 GHz technology from vendors such as Alvarion, not mesh.

Bamboo is using SkyPilot’s first-generation mesh products. There are three main components. SkyGateways connect to the Internet and communicate with SkyExtenders, the mesh network nodes, and SkyConnectors, the customer premises equipment (CPE). The SkyPilot technology exploits low-cost 802.11 chips and off-the-shelf antenna technology, and adds innovative scheduling and routing that allows it to carry multiple conversations on the same spectrum. That in turn makes the system more scalable, the company says.

“We have a fundamentally different way of managing the RF from other vendors,” says SkyPilot’s Jenkins. “Nobody else has been able to replicate what we’ve done.” The company just announced its 200th customer, and sales of over 10,000 units.

Duzant says CDSO is able to service a population base of from 80,000 to 100,000 in its Malaga markets using only three SkyGateways and about 40 Extenders.  

Last year, SkyPilot introduced a dual-radio SkyExtender that lets operators separate backhaul from access traffic to reduce self-interference; last week, it said it will soon have a TriBand three-radio version of the SkyExtender that includes 4.9GHz support (4.9 is reserved in the U.S. for emergency personnel). Backhaul goes over 5.8GHz spectrum, while 2.4GHz Wi-Fi is still used for last mile connectivity to end users. According to a recent report from Yankee Group, Myths and Realities of Wi-Fi Mesh Networking, this modular, multi-radio architecture puts SkyPilot in a small group of mesh vendors offering what the analyst firm calls “third-generation” mesh Wi-Fi solutions. The others are BelAir and Strix Systems.

Yankee says the modularity of the newer mesh offerings gives operators more flexibility in designing systems, and an easier upgrade path to future technologies such as WiMax. Third-generation systems also offer advanced features such as auto discovery, self-provisioning, self-optimizing and QoS. The report tends to corroborate SkyPilot’s claim that its technology is clearly differentiated from others on the market.

“[The SkyPilot technology] uses synchronous protocols to create a 5-GHz directional and deterministic mesh with integrated backhaul,” the Yankee Group authors say. “Multiple concurrent conversations can be handled at the same time on the same frequency. The synchronous design could also enable an easier migration path to WiMax mesh networking.”

The new technology is helping power SkyPilot’s fairly recent drive into the muni Wi-Fi market at home, including projects that require mobile broadband. CDSO was on the point of taking delivery of its first dual-radio SkyExtenders when we spoke to Duzant in early March. The company is anxious to see how they work because, although muni Wi-Fi has in general not caught on well outside the U.S., Duzant believes there is a market in Europe for mobile broadband, especially among PDA-toting students on university campuses who could use IP softphones for mobile telephony.

“We’re trying to get going with mobile wireless VoIP now, while waiting for the future of WiMax,” Duzant says.

CDSO, meanwhile, is not interested in expanding its own network operations beyond the south of Spain. “For the north [of Spain], we will support and distribute the SkyPilot products,” Duzant says. The company is already working with two Spanish operators, one in Galicia in the far northwest, and one in Valencia, midway up the Mediterranean coast. “There’s no better way of selling a product than knowing intimately how it works,” Duzant notes. “And we can bring customers to the south of Spain to show them how it works.”

That on its own may be enough of an inducement for northerners to work with CDSO. Two undisclosed Dutch operators are currently testing SkyPilot demo kits – two SkyConnectors and a SkyExtender. The Spanish operators, also not named, are apparently further along. Where CDSO will turn next in Europe, Duzant won’t say, but he has made it clear he doesn’t intend to stop at Spain and the Netherlands.

“We’re working on a plan right now,” he says. “But we’re waiting on the dual-band [SkyExtenders], waiting to finish the testing on them before we move ahead.”

It’s perhaps clearer where CDSO won’t try to sell the SkyPilot products. CDSO is not SkyPilot’s only foothold in Europe. One of the company’s first big successes was Telabria Wireless Networks in the UK. It also has WISPs in Germany. “We’re not competing with them at all,” Duzant emphasizes. “ We’re not selling in the UK or Germany or Austria.”

What's left, then, for CDSO? Italy, France, Scandinavia? Or will one of the other European SkyPilot WISPs decide to do the same thing CDSO is doing and get in ahead of the Spanish company?

The more experienced WISP/distributors are, of course, the better for SkyPilot. It’s up against formidable competition. Yankee Group says the Wi-Fi mesh equipment market will be dominated in future by big players like Cisco, Nortel and Lucent, leaving little room for startups like SkyPilot. Furthermore, the big three have already partnered with or acquired independent mesh vendors. Except for co-pilots like CDSO, SkyPilot may be flying solo.