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US Wireless Online, AIR2LAN Merge

US Wireless Online and AIR2LAN announced Thursday that they will merge. The two companies will retain their names as they consolidate operations.

The decision reflects the maturing of the fixed wireless broadband Internet industry, but it also owes a lot to a personal friendship between the CEOs of the two companies. Speaking from his office in Louisville, Ky. US Wireless Online CEO L. Douglas Keeney said, "when I accepted the CEO position of US Wireless Online, which was then headquartered in Atlanta, I called several other WISP CEOs. One of those I spoke to was Jai Bhagat, CEO of AIR2LAN. As our friendship blossomed, we realized that our organizations had no geographical overlap. We met more often when we joined the License Exempt Alliance (LEA) of the WCA."

Sheeney is the current chairman of the LEA; Bhagat chaired the LEA last year. This is yet another instance where associations provide people the opportunity to meet like-minded professionals—that's "networking."

As it coalesces, the industry is maturing and changing. Noted Keeney, "there are many good operators with a narrow geographical focus. There are between 700 and 1,700 WISPs in the United States, and there have to be redundancies across companies, in the finance department or in the NOC. As more sophisticated management groups look at our industry, they will find that each company has its strengths and weaknesses."

US Wireless Online acquired part of Darwin Networks from bankruptcy court in May of 2001. Darwin provided kiosk access, as well as DSL and building broadband. US Wireless Online kept the kiosk business and Darwin's high-quality NOC, but did not acquire the DSL and building services assets. US Wireless Online therefore brings a high quality NOC to the merged entity.

At the time, US Wireless Online president David Hayes said, "With Darwin came a state-of-the-art Network Operations Center with triple redundant power, fiber, servers, monitoring counsels and state-of-the-art fire suppression, cooling, and air filtering. Better still, it was staffed by some of the finest network engineers I've ever met. Taken together—the incredible technology in place and the people that run it—it only made sense to migrate our Atlanta center up to Louisville."

AIR2LAN has focused on working with other ISPs and with roaming initiatives such as Boingo. AIR2LAN has also developed its corporate product line, which includes roaming and VPN offerings.

AIR2LAN operates in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. US Wireless Online operates in Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Each serves one top-tier city (tier one cities are also known as "NFL cities" because a list of tier one cities tends to list only cities that have NFL teams): AIR2LAN serves Houston and US Wireless Online serves Atlanta.

"We compete with DSL and cable," said Keeney. "In any market, we'll focus first on serving business customers. When our residential products are available, they are priced significantly below DSL and cable. Even though we have a better product, one without a single point of failure, with tremendous throughput (some of it capped and shaped), that can be rolled out quickly, the quality is less important than the price. Sure, our bandwidth is symmetrical and upgradeable. If a customer starts out at 512 Kbps, we can expand them all the way up to 54 Mbps 802.11a. Cable and DSL will max out. Nevertheless, it's pricing that's driving wireless. We're significantly less expensive, especially if you compare us to a T-1."

With no geographical overlap, integrating the two organizations should be simple. "Also, we deployed in a similar manner. We use 5.3 GHz and 5.8 GHz trunk lines for backhauls, 2.4 GHz for corporate service, and 900 MHz for residential and SOHO customers. Although we may move to mesh architectures or to smart antennas like Vivato's in the future, right now we're using 900 MHz radios from Alvarion and WaveRider that provide robust throughputs and great NLOS range. When we ship a modem to a customer, we're finding that at least 70 percent can do a self install," said Keeney.

As to the future, Keeney said he's looking forward to a marketing drive. "We're in some rural areas, and there is a successful business model working in rural areas. AIR2LAN serves the Mississippi Delta. But we like to be in areas where there's advertising and unrest. The management of the combined companies comes from packaged goods marketing. There's nothing like a good marketing battle to get customers buying more product."