Celerus Courts SMBs Deploying Hotspots

The word of the week in the public access Wi-Fi world is management. Networks are deployed, or getting there. Users have the hang of it, and public awareness is reaching critical mass, at least among those most likely to make use of a wireless network. So what comes next? Managing it all.

Operators increasingly are looking for means by which to handle the back-end with as little fuss as possible. Authentication, configuration, and billing (where billing is required): Wi-Fi operators want software to make these things seamless, and vendors are stepping up to the plate.

Washington, D.C.-based, Celerus Networks is one such company. Celerus produces products to help design, build and operate WLANs. Its flagship software is the All-In-One Wireless Management Suite, whose features include client management, customizable wireless portals, network management and other back-end functions.

And you get all that for free. Sort of. Celerus offers its management product on a no-cost license, making its money instead on support and maintenance. Prices start at $8 a month for each access controller, which can support up to 20 access points.

Company executives structured the no-cost plan in an effort to court smaller enterprises looking to enter the Wi-Fi space. “We have spoken to a number of retail franchise owners, people who own five or 10 or 20 locations,” explained Celerus Chairman Mark Corbitt. “For them, an initial software expense of $15,000 or $20,000 would be a very big expense.”

In offering a free startup plan, Corbitt said, Celerus hopes to open up a whole new marketplace for management software. “We feel we can help build out Wi-Fi infrastructure in a number of places where they have not been able to make that investment up to today,” he said.

Those who question the wisdom of the plan may do well to consider the source. In his pre-Celerus days, Corbitt led investments for Telcom Ventures, a communications management and investment company with over $1 billion in assets. The company helped to develop a range of successful enterprises, including LCC, Aether Systems, and XM Radio.

Regardless of the pricing model, analysts say, the market for Wi-Fi management tools appears to have real potential.

Ina Sebastian, research associate at Jupiter Research, suggests that the rise of commercial Wi-Fi deployments has boosted user expectations, which in turn gives rise to the need for a higher level of network management savvy. “Customers expect high quality and security wherever they log on, in particular with paid services,” Sebastian said.

At the same time, the sheer volume of Wi-Fi deployments is driving a need for greater efficiency (read: less hassle) on the back-end. “ISPs and aggregators continue to expand their footprint and enter new roaming relationships,” Sebastian said. As that happens, “there is a growing demand for Wi-Fi back-end management tools, as they handle such critical processes as authentication, roaming settlement, subscriber management, billing and so on.”

While the demand may be growing, challenges lie ahead for Celerus and other smaller network-management providers as they seek to stake out ground in the shadow of giants like Cisco. “We can distribute the software on a global basis, but as a smaller firm we don’t necessarily have the kind of marketing resources to hand that would make that possible,” Corbitt said.

In striving to overcome that hurdle, Corbitt has been forging strategic alliances. On the technology side, he has developed relationships with Novell and Colubris Networks. At the same time, Celerus has begun to seek out opportunities to enter the Wi-Fi flow right at the source, creating relationships with the likes of New Edge Networks, a nationwide broadband provider.

“For broadband providers there is a built-in synergy, in the sense that the solutions we provide fit well with entities that already have high-speed broadband backhaul,” Corbitt said.

VoIP could also be a boon, he said, as providers seek back-end integration of a growing range of services in order to offer a seamless user experience.

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