RealTime IT News

Detonating the SME market

Somebody at Bandspeed did the math last year and figured out that the business mass market for wireless LAN gear – small firms with fewer than 100 employees, of which there are approximately 7.7 million in North America – was a vast and largely untapped opportunity. So the company developed its AirMaestro Platform to go after the SME market. It launched the product in May.

AirMaestro is an offering for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that includes a multi-band integrated circuit (IC) radio, software and firmware, plus reference designs for a mini-PCI radio card incorporating the IC and an access point.

“We worked with OEMs and ODMs (original design manufacturers) for over a year to find out what we needed to do to properly address this segment,” says Bandspeed vice president of sales and marketing Bob Mayer. “We also engaged with VARs and end customers who gave us input.”

With AirMaestro’s combination of multiband (a/b/g) radio, integrated RF monitoring (for detecting rogues and diagnosing RF problems), software-driven virtual controller technology and automated setup and configuration, OEM customers will be able for the first time to build products that address the special requirements of small/medium enterprise (SME) buyers, Mayer says. And that should put them in a good position to ride an anticipated wave of SME WLAN adoption.

Bandspeed, originally launched in 1998 to develop DSL products, shifted its attention to Wi-Fi in 2003, introducing multi-sector access point (AP) technology that could simultaneously deliver full-speed access to each of four sectors. By last year, when Mayer joined the company, Bandspeed was again looking for a new direction. It had the multi-band IC product in development, which incorporated some of the multi-sector technology. The question was how to position it.

The SME market quickly became the focus. Mayer cites persuasive market data to show why. According to a January 2006 Dell’Oro Group report, the enterprise WLAN market will explode over the next five years, with the number of access points deployed jumping from 1.5 million in 2005 to 13.2 million in 2010. Infonetics Research survey data shows that 57% of small businesses, 62% of medium-size businesses, and 72% of large organizations in North America will be using WLANs by 2009. Given the 7.7 million small enterprises and 95,000 medium-size businesses (with more than 100 employees but fewer than 1,000), the market could be huge.

Mayer believes that unless Wi-Fi vendors can address the special needs of SMEs the market potential will remain just that: potential. For starters, SMEs need low-cost solutions. “There are a lot of very good [Wi-Fi] solutions out there for large enterprises,” he says. “But they’re all based on using a hardware controller, which is very expensive.”

Hardware controllers provide functionality that helps Wi-Fi equipment vendors satisfy requirements for quality, reliability, manageability and security. They add about $3,500 on average to the cost of a network, Mayer says. This is no big deal in a large enterprise implementation with dozens of access points, but the average SME will only deploy about seven APs. That means a controller would add $500 per access point to the cost of the network. Since the average price for “dependant” APs designed to work with a controller is $250, the cost per AP would work out to $750 – too much for most SMEs.

Bandspeed has developed IC firmware and AP and PC software that all work together to provide the same kind of network management and traffic control functionality as a hardware controller, while eliminating the need for the extra hardware. A PC running console software attached to any AP in the network can change settings on any other AP – or on all APs at once.

Access points designed for use without a hardware controller cost about $450 on average, Mayer says. The Bandspeed software adds approximately $50 to that cost, for a total of $500 – almost 40% less than the per-access point cost in networks with hardware controllers.

That doesn’t take into account the savings on implementing an overlay network of RF sensors. Many enterprises install dedicated sensor networks to monitor for rogue access points and diagnose RF problems. A rogue is any unauthorized AP. It might be placed carelessly by an employee looking to improve connectivity or maliciously by industrial spies. Either way, rogues make the network more vulnerable to hackers. Dedicated RF monitoring systems can add as much as $10,000 to network costs.

The Bandspeed IC platform not only includes separate 802.11a, b and g radios, but also RF sensors. The access point is in effect three access points in one, plus an RF sensor. “That’s unique not only for SME solutions but for any Wi-Fi solution,” Mayer says.

Network setup is another problem for SMEs, many of which don’t have IT departments, RF expertise or much understanding of interference issues. The Bandspeed software enables automatic setup and configuration. Even non-technical staff can set up a network. They simply place access points in logical places around the facility. The APs communicate using a proprietary protocol and automatically set power levels to ensure optimum coverage while minimizing interference. If initial placement of APs leaves coverage dead spots, the easiest and cheapest solution is to add another access point.

The Bandspeed self-configuration technology essentially eliminates the need for site surveys that identify optimum positioning of access points. Site surveys are expensive, as much as $10,000, Mayer points out. “[Customers] will save more money by not doing a site survey,” he says. “You can spend $10,000 on a site survey or $450 on one more access point. SMEs can figure that one out pretty quickly.”

Bandspeed believes a key driver in the Wi-Fi market going forward, especially in the SME segment, will be the desire to use voice and even video over Wi-Fi and to be able to seamlessly roam around a facility while talking on the phone. This has a number of implications for network design and performance. The Bandspeed platform already offers 802.11e quality of service (QoS) for prioritizing voice packets. Its virtual controller technology provides the kind of load balancing and automatic AP configuration required to support voice. Hand-off times between access points is rated at 50 milliseconds, which is not even audible in a voice call.

Because of limitations on the number of simultaneous calls an AP can support, SMEs will still likely have to deploy additional access points to support voice. Indeed, if voice over Wi-Fi takes off as some are predicting – Infonetics surveys show 70% of companies intend to deploy VoWi-Fi at some point – the increase in numbers of APs deployed could be even greater than anticipated, Mayer says. That will make managing and eliminating interference an even more crucial consideration.

“Most people don’t really understand interference,” he points out. “Sometimes it might take longer to download something than at other times. They don’t understand that’s because of interference, but it doesn’t really matter. But with voice they will get a very tangible understanding.”

The effects of interference can make the difference between a reliable voice network that allows seamless roaming and one with chronic problems with latency, jitter and dropped calls. That means AirMaestro’s self-configuration and self-healing capabilities will be even more important. In fact, if Wi-Fi technology doesn’t address interference and other quality of service issues automatically, the whole VoWi-Fi boom might not happen, Mayer says. “The initial experience will be so poor, [SMEs] won’t actually go on to adopt voice over Wi-Fi.”

Bandspeed already has one customer – almost. It announced recently that it had partnered with Planex Communications, a Japanese Wi-Fi equipment maker, to produce prototype complete solutions using AirMaestro. Mayer won’t say categorically whether his company has a firm contract. He points to a laudatory but non-committal quote from the Planex CEO in Bandspeed’s press release and says, “If you look at that quote, I’d say the answer is yes.”

In the meantime, Bandspeed is in discussions with several other potential customers. About a dozen are evaluating the product. The company is pitching AirMaestro to players such as Netgear, D-Link and Linksys that have begun to move into the SME market but which Mayer says so far lack affordable enterprise-class products.

Is it third time lucky (or good) for Bandspeed? Has the company finally found a product and a market strategy that will carry it out of the Wi-Fi wilderness? Or are other vendors, as we speak, rushing similar products to market? Keep an eye on this space.