Picking Up Speed

Jim Baker is the classic Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur—only transplanted to the UK.

Like others of his breed, Baker seems addicted to starting, then selling companies. He did it twice in California with streaming media ventures, then came home to England and turned his attention to Wi-Fi.

Now, true to form, his latest company, Moovera Networks, a purveyor of systems and services for delivering Wi-Fi Internet access on public transport, especially buses, is being acquired by Icomera, the Swedish pioneer of Wi-Fi on trains. The final deatails of the merger, which was announced today, have not been released.

Quick start

Baker worked fast this time. He only launched Moovera in November of 2006. It was his second UK venture. He sold off the assets of the first, Telabria, a pre-WiMAX access network operator, shortly before forming Moovera.

Telabria was perhaps not his greatest success. “It was fairly tough going,” he admits. “Ultimately, the share holders, and I was the chief shareholder, decided it wasn’t worth spending the vast amounts of money it would take to build it out.”

Moovera is different. In the 18 months since launch, the company has sold hundreds of its ruggedized, dual-radio, GPS-enabled Moovbox Wi-Fi access points to transport companies—at about $1,200 apiece—along with management software and ancillary services.

More importantly, Baker says, Moovera managed to get its foot in the door at some big players, such as National Express and Arriva PLC in the UK, and FirstGroup PLC, which owns Laidlaw International in the U.S. He’s confident they’ll be customers for a long time.

The customer base was likely one of the chief attractions for Icomera. Some of Moovera’s are also Icomera customers, which may have made the Swedish company a little uncomfortable—would Moovera eventually decide to move up market and try to take over those customers completely?

The acquisition may also be a signal that the market for Wi-Fi on public transport is about to take off. Baker, who will stay on with Icomera as chief marketing officer, certainly believes this to be true.

“[The market is] still in its infancy, but that will change quite dramatically over the next six to nine months,” he predicts. “We’re already seeing dramatic increases quarter over quarter.”

He cites research from hotspot operator iPass Inc. showing that public transit has been the fastest-growing venue type for new hotspots in recent years.

Low hanging fruit

Many segments, including some low hanging fruit, have barely been touched, he points out. Selling to airport shuttle bus companies, for example, could be a full-time job on its own for a company Moovera’s size. Limousine companies are another largely untouched segment.

Big developing world markets such as India and China, where populations rely heavily on public transit, may also soon be ripe for picking.

“The market,” Baker says, “is huge. And it really does have legs.”

That could not have been said three years ago when Wi-Fi services on trains first began to appear—or even a year ago, he admits.

What changed? Cellular carriers began deploying HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) networks capable of delivering real-world network access in the 1.5 megabit per second range—as fast as or faster than entry-level cable and phone line access services.

“The truth is, delivering an Internet connection to a moving vehicle is completely and utterly dependent on the wide area network providing backhaul,” Baker says.

Pioneers offering Wi-Fi on trains tried using 3G or even GPRS—“which is nuts,” Baker says—and in rural areas unserved by cellular or satellite. It was too slow to be really effective. The alternative, taken by a few of Icomera’s big train company customers, was to build track-side broadband networks at enormous expense.

But now, at least in cities and along major transportation corridors in the developed world, it’s possible to deliver creditable Wi-Fi access using HSDPA for backhaul. Moovera’s systems also work with TD-CDMA, iBurst, and WiMAX, which can deliver similar or better throughput.

Three key drivers

Wi-Fi access for riders, though, is just one of three key drivers for the market Moovera has been mining, Baker says.

“The transport companies are looking to distinguish themselves from competitors, sure, so Wi-Fi access is obviously a good thing for them to do.” Most, he points out, are providing access for free as an incentive for riders to use their services.

“But just as important, or in some cases more important, is Internet access for onboard systems,” Baker says.

The transport companies want to be able to retrieve telemetric data about the condition of vehicles (tire pressure, oil levels, etc.) and driver habits (how fast they go, how heavily they brake). Moovera’s products let them do that.

More importantly, bus and train operators increasingly want to be able to monitor onboard security cameras. “There has been massive growth in the number of CCTV systems deployed on buses and trains to protect passengers and drivers,” Baker points out.

It’s not practical, given bandwidth constraints, to have continual feeds from CCTV cameras going over the Moovbox connection—there would be no bandwidth left for anything else. Most of the time, camera feeds go to an onboard digital video recorder, and the video is reviewed, when necessary, only after vehicles return to base.

But Moovera has been pitching companies on the notion of activating live monitoring over the Moovbox connection in emergencies—when the driver hits a panic button or calls on a mobile phone. Internet access users are dumped from the connection, leaving all the bandwidth for video.

“As long as the video system uses a modern codec such as H.264 [MPEG4], you can get a good quality feed at several frames per second,” Baker says. “We do it all the time, it works really well.”

That ability on its own is sometimes enough to sell transport companies on using the Moovera technology, he says.

Bus 54 where are you?

The third driver is GPS. Many transport companies want to be able to track their vehicles to know where they are or check progress against a timetable. The Moovera products have GPS receivers built in and can send location data back to the operator over the backhaul connection.

“You would think these companies would already have GPS onboard their vehicles,” Baker says. “But most are just starting to think about it now.”

The Moovera technology lets them use sophisticated third-party vehicle tracking systems, if they want—it includes an open API (application programming interface). Or if they just want to be able to track where their vehicles are, they can use the simple application Moovera developed using Google maps.

Baker claims the company’s strength is that it provides a unified solution to meet all three needs. There isn’t much extra room on buses for installing technology, he points out, and certainly not enough to install three separate pieces of equipment.

The Moovbox units are compact and—very important—ruggedized. Unlike the desktop APs used in some “cheap and cheerful” public transport implementations, they also meet the stringent, in some cases legally mandated, engineering requirements for onboard equipment.

Moovera’s products may meet the needs of short-haul operators—its deployments to date have mostly been on buses, with some urban light rail lines and ferries—and at a price they can afford, but Baker is the first to admit his company doesn’t have sophisticated enough technology to answer the needs of bigger, long-distance train operators

Making to the bigs

That, among other things, is what Icomera brings to the table—patented technology, for example, that seamlessly and automatically switches from satellite backhaul in rural areas to cellular in more urban areas while the vehicle is moving. It will now be used in the Moovera products as well.

Despite his latest venture’s rapid success, acquisition is apparently a humbling experience for Baker this time.  

“I’ve come to realize there are some much bigger companies out there doing some really clever things,” he says modestly, citing Nokia and other major-league players. “Icomera is one of them—this is big boy stuff.”

Still, if Icomera brings sophisticated technology, Moovera and Baker bring marketing smarts, a certain nimbleness—and a bankable trade name. Icomera will adopt Moovbox branding across its entire product line, he says.

It’s surely a tribute to Baker’s marketing savvy. But will it be enough to keep him working for a big corporation after a decade or more of entrepreneuring?

We’re guessing that despite his protestations of finally being “tired” of the start-up game at 43, Baker won’t be able to resist for long.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet. He is based in Canada.

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