Wi-Fi in the City: UK Version

Muni Wi-Fi was slower to take off in the UK than stateside, but momentum in Britain is beginning to build now. Telabria, an interesting company that we last heard from a couple of years ago when it was deploying Wi-Fi networks in small-town southern England, is one of several key players. Telabria is both an equipment and service provider.  

The company was involved recently in a muni Wi-Fi project billed as the largest in Britain. Norfolk Open Link is centered around Norwich, a city of about 200,000 in southeast England and the county seat of Norfolk. The hotzone covers a swath of about 12 square miles through the town center and provides citizens and businesses with free 256 Kilobits per second (Kbps) service.

Project developers deliberately set the connection speed low for the free service because they didn’t want commercial service providers in the region to “feel aggrieved that they’d been done out of business by a project supported by public money,” says Telabria founder and CEO Jim Baker. The project, a two-year pilot, is underwritten by the East of England Development Agency (EEDA), a federally funded industry-government partnership. It will end up spending £1.1 million (about $2.06 million USD).

“The interesting thing about Norwich, unlike with RFPs from a lot of U.S. cities, is that the municipality wanted to own this network,” says Baker. “And the primary driver had nothing to do with public Wi-Fi. They wanted broadband mobility for building inspectors, traffic wardens, police. And they wanted their own common infrastructure, not just across the city but in rural Norfolk as well.”

Telabria was part of a consortium led by Synetrix, a UK-based broadband network services and solutions provider. It won the Norwich contract over another consortium that included heavy-hitters British Telecom and Cisco Systems. Telabria is supplying Wi-Fi mesh access points plus user support. Redline Networks, recently acquired by Juniper Networks, supplied the “WiMax-class” wireless backhaul equipment. Synetrix was the network integrator.

“The Norwich project is considerably bigger than anything else in the UK,” says Baker. “There really aren’t very many others so it’s easy to make such claims.” The others include the city of Bristol and the so-called Technology Mile in Islington, near London, both built using Wi-Fi mesh equipment from BelAir Networks.

The Norwich deal was the “first big win” for Telabria since entering the hardware market. Baker decided a couple of years ago that he could do a better job than the suppliers his company was using for Wi-Fi mesh equipment and saw a couple of niches for products that conformed to European standards. Today, Telabria has two products, but probably won’t add more any time soon.

The mSystem APM-300 is a dual-radio, tri-mode outdoor and indoor wireless mesh router and access point (AP) for fixed broadband applications. The mSystem AP-3G is a ruggedized Wi-Fi AP designed to work with 3G networks and provide mobile connectivity in buses, coaches and limousines.

Synetrix has deployed about 300 of the APM-300 units in Norwich. (That compares to 18 and 11 APs in the initial roll-outs in Bristol and Islington.) It will continue to install APs this year, covering rural regions around Norwich. The network also includes nine aggregation points from which traffic is backhauled to a 40 Mbps fiber link at city hall.

Telabria got the sub-contract for the Wi-Fi hardware partly because it kept prices low, Baker says, and partly because it could also bring experience in deploying and operating wireless networks. It already had a call center in place to support users in its other business of providing wireless broadband services in small cities. It will now use that call center to support the Norwich users as well.

Baker started off three years ago with the idea of providing wireless broadband service using Wi-Fi mesh technology in small, underserved towns and rural areas in England. He later decided that Wi-Fi “couldn’t cut it” for the kind of service he wanted to offer, and began building WiMax-class networks in small cities with populations in the 50,000 to 70,000 range. The company uses equipment from Aperto Networks, Redline and Alvarion.

Today Telabria sells service under the brand name SoBroadband primarily to businesses, with network speeds ranging up to 10 Mbps. It has fewer than 1,000 customers in seven centers, all in Kent and Sussex in the south of England — cities such as Canterbury and Ashford. Residential packages start at £20 (about $37 USD) a month, business services at £50 (about $93).

“We’re getting there,” Baker says of the SoBroadband business. “But it’s a fairly long-term commitment. We’re trying to sell services [to business] that cost £250 and £380 a month, so we don’t necessarily put a value on the number of subscribers. It’s more the revenues they generate.”

Over 40% of customers also take VoIP service from Telabria, with prices starting at £10 (about $19) a month. That is considerably higher than the national penetration rate for VoIP, Baker points out.

At the same time, the company continues to build Wi-Fi hotspots like those it started with three years ago, many of them in pubs. It has about 120 in place and is starting to build outdoor hotzones in some of its WiMax markets as well. It will do more in the hotzone space in 2007.

Baker is intrigued by the advertising-supported public Wi-Fi business model pioneered by Chuck Haas, CEO and co-founder of MetroFi, a Mountain View, California company deploying hotzones in Silicon Valley and soon in Portland, Oregon. But the Telabria hotzones will probably continue to be accessed for a fee. “He must have a good business plan because he’s raised quite a bit of money,” Baker says of Haas. “But we’ve taken a different stance.”

Meanwhile, Telabria’s other hardware product is selling into a market that Baker thinks has great potential. The company has already sold to National Express, one of the largest long-distance coach services in the UK. The technology works very much the way train Wi-Fi systems work — using cellular for backhaul and Wi-Fi for the last ten meters — but with cheaper, more portable equipment. “The boxes are priced at under $1,000 so that fleet owners can afford to put one in every vehicle,” Baker says.

In September, Telabria will add GPS tracking to the mSystem AP-3G. PC software will allow a fleet operator to see where a vehicle is on an onscreen map.

Backhaul for now is via 3G cellular, but the Telabria technology is network-agnostic. Baker believes the future of mobile broadband is HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), also sometimes referred to as 3.5G or 3½G. It provides an evolutionary path for UMTS-based 3G networks and delivers data transfer speeds up to 14.4 Mbps downlink and 2 Mbps uplink.

Vodafone Group and T-Mobile (UK) are both offering limited HSDPA coverage in the UK, with data speeds in the 2 Mbps range. They’re pushing the service hard, with prices under £20 a month, Baker says. “It’s priced to be a portable DSL connection.”

He is betting on HSDPA over 802.16e, the revision of WiMax that will support high-speed mobile connections. “By the time 16e hits, HSDPA will already have been out for 18 months,” Baker points out. “When you look at the marketing budgets these guys [the big mobile operators deploying HSDPA] have, 16e will be highly challenged.”

WiMax will dominate in the fixed wireless broadband space, though, he says. Telabria has always followed a multi-vendor strategy, and Baker is eager to get his hands on the first fully standards-based and interoperable WiMax gear — which he believes will probably ship from Airspan Networks and Axxcelera Broadband Wireless.

To keep it all going, though, costs. Telabria has raised about £2.3 million, mostly from private investors, but is looking for venture capital funding, including from the U.S., where Baker, a Briton, cut his entrepreneurial teeth in Silicon Valley companies. He returned to the UK in 2003 and started Telabria shortly after.

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