Rooftop Plays e-Santa

People are pretty much accustomed to gifts arriving on the roof, what with Santa’s near-100 percent mind-share of the goodies market. And now, the fat old guy in the red suit could be getting some e-competition, especially for bandwidth-starved Net users.

The new e-Claus is Rooftop Communications which promises to deliver always-on, wireless broadband at 1 and 1.6 Mbps all without having to hassle with the phone company or the cable guy. A T-1, by comparison offers 1.544Mbps.

John Freeman, principal analyst with research firm Current Analysis thinks Rooftop will be the leader for broadband access in areas which lack critical mass for broadband access — smaller towns and rural areas — where rolling out DSL and cable may be too expensive or impractical.

“Rooftop makes so much sense because its architecture is not the typical wireless line-of-site configuration — a hub and spoke — but multi-point to multi-point,” said Freeman.

Customers of Rooftop install radio receivers that can not only of communicating directly with their Internet ISP, but also can relay signals from other users up to six miles away. This allows a Rooftop connection for users who are not in sight of their ISP, but are within six miles line of sight of another user’s antenna.

In addition, Rooftop does not use the familiar wireless dish commonly associated with wireless broadband, but smaller, less obtrusive and easier to mount antennas that resemble either a CB radio antenna or a small telescope tube on a stick. And since Rooftop operates in the unlicensed (and therefore free) 2.4 GHz band, users and their ISPs save substantially by not having to pay for radio spectrum.

The technology has been tested for several years in the government and defense sectors, says Rooftop which says that some of its current institutional users include SRI International, The U.S. Army, BBN and the University of California at Santa Cruz. Rooftop is currently raising its first round of private capital and has so far been funded by a total of $4.5 million from DARPA and the SBIR ( Small Business Innovative Research fund administered by DARPA). The new financing will be used to beef up its sales and marketing operation and to roll out the service later this year for local ISPs and their customers.

While Freeman says that installing a Rooftop system can be a rural ISP’s most cost-effective (and sometimes only) way to offer broadband, the start-up costs can be pricey for the end user since it usually requires them to buy a receiver for about $2,000 — comparable to installation costs for a T-1. But unlike T-1s which average $800 to $900 per month, Rooftop said that ISPs rolling out is broadband service are looking at about $50 per month, competitive with DSL or cable modems. Some ISP’s may reduce the sticker shock by financing installment plans for the hardware, something Rooftop could — and probably should — facilitate by negotiating a customer-group financing deal with someone like GE Credit.

Some rural ISPs remain unimpressed with Rooftop’s efforts so far.

“I couldn’t find anyone at Rooftop who could talk to me about the technology of what we were trying to accomplish. All they [Rooftop] wanted to do was get me into the sales loop, sign me up for this program or that. It was all about deals,” said Rob Thomas, co-owner of Valley of the Moon.Com, a Northern California ISP.

Thomas said that was a key factor in their decision to go with traditional spoke-and-wheel wireless provider Aironet.Com which has a strong network of technically savvy distributors.

“This is an ideal system for the developing world — especially Asia,” said analyst Freeman who pointed out that these countries lack an established landline infrastructure for telecommunications and have therefore embraced wireless phones and similar technologies.

Rooftop’s cost advantages — especially when receiver costs fall — and its ability to circumvent the line-of-sight issues in traditional wireless connections, Freeman believes, will give them the ability to play Santa not only to the Third World, but to forgotten broadband users in America’s small cities, towns and rural areas.

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