Cheetah Tries Them All

Service provider Cheetah Wireless Technologies announced recently that it would team with BelAir Networks to launch a broadband mesh network along the Las Vegas Strip, bringing high-speed Wi-Fi into some of the country’s largest hotels and casinos. (They’ll do the same in Primm, Nevada.)

Given all the urban wireless deployments these days, this might have been a news nugget of moderate interest, except for one thing. Cheetah already has established similar agreements with a number of other hardware vendors in recent years.

Typically, a wireless service provider or aggregator will saddle up with a single hardware manufacturer and ride that horse all the way. Cheetah is running a different race, according to company president and founder Mitchell Gonzalez. His company’s strategy is to back whatever runner it thinks can win in a given event.

“We have selected different technologies for different reasons,” Gonzalez says. “At the end of the day, if the application we are working on calls for in-room coverage in a hotel, that is going to be different from the product we use for the police going down the road.”

Cheetah’s history bears out this philosophy.

The BelAir project, for example, makes use of a BelAir200 four-radio unit and BelAir100 multi-service nodes. With these, Cheetah can penetrate a 40-story building without special antennas or engineering. “You probably could use something else, but your cost to deploy it would be 10 times higher, because it becomes a field engineering project — you have to go out there and engineer it yourself,” Gonzalez says.

By comparison, Cheetah has in the past used Tropos Networks because of its mobile capabilities. “If you want to get in the car and retain connectivity while you are driving, that is the only box we have ever seen that works,” Gonzalez says.

In the summer of 2004, Cheetah teamed with MeshNetworks, now part of Motorola, to deploy broadband in downtown Las Vegas. Gonzalez picked MeshNetworks for its ability to create exceptional privacy on its network.

Can’t Cheetah make up its mind?

That certainly is one way to look at it, Gonzalez concedes. On the other hand, he says, why should he settle for second-best? Why tie the company to a single hardware provider, when others may do the job better?

It takes time and effort to do things Cheetah’s way.

First, Gonzalez will let any new technology marinate for a while before he even looks at it. “If you are going to be out there with the latest and greatest every time, you are going to lose money,” he says. “It’s not going to work, because it never does. The first version of any vendor’s product doesn’t work.”

He’ll watch early deployments, talk to customers, and eventually test any new hardware in his own labs, where some functions will almost certainly fail.

Gonzalez says a manufacturer’s quality assurance program typically will test only one feature a time, whereas his lab will explore the effects of multiples functions running at once. “If you use this feature in combination with this other feature at the same time, then suddenly it doesn’t work the way you thought it would,” he says. “We have had our share of that, basically, with all the manufacturers.”

If the hardware maker will fix the flaw, Gonzalez will do a limited deployment, make tweaks based on that, and eventually accept the vendor as a partner for a larger deployment.

It’s a process that seems to work. Some 22,000 people a month use Cheetah’s ad-supported networks in several cities, while another 2,500 to 3,500 pay to access the network. And Gonzalez is looking for bigger numbers soon. With the BelAir deployment, he expects his service to reach some 50,000 Las Vegas hotel rooms by this summer.

Still, there are potential downsides to Cheetah’s unconventional strategy of engaging multiple vendors.

First, Cheetah’s tech team needs to be up to speed on the nuances of a lot of different equipment. This means team members are either attending training sessions or training one another on an ongoing basis.

Cheetah also must manage multiple hardware platforms through a single interface, allowing network operators to watch the performance of all aspects of the network at one time. Gonzalez brought in an outside software development firm to lay the groundwork for such a system, and then had his own development team customize that platform. “We said to [the software developers], give us 90 percent of what we want, and we will take it the last 10 percent,” he says.

Finally, there is the risk of alienating the hardware manufacturers. Tell them you are using someone else’s product, or drop below a certain ordering level, and they may just stop doing business with you altogether.

Gonzalez’s solution is to show them that his program can generate profit for everyone.

“We made the business case — we said that, with or without you, we are going to get these deals, and as it turns out, we are doing the deals and we are buying hundreds of thousands of dollars from these guys,” he says. “And if you are buying enough stuff, they love you. Ultimately, money is what talks here.”

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