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Network With No Strings Attached

SkyPilot's wireless technology is attracting attention because of its low cost and ease of installation.

August 30, 2004|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

RENO — Four weeks without a glitch, and Mike Efstratis was sold on wireless.

He was impressed from the start: After watching the simple installation take all of five minutes, the general manager of Tanamera Commercial Development figured he had found a low-cost, high-speed Internet service for the office and the company's commercial and residential building projects.

In fact, Tanamera may sever the industrial-strength, high-capacity line that runs to its headquarters and the hard-wired phone lines in its construction trailers. Efstratis is arranging to ditch his digital subscriber line at home and replace it with an antenna.

"This is a great system," he said of the citywide wireless network built by SkyPilot Network Inc. and run by Hot Spot Broadband. "I'm getting 4.5 megs consistently."

At that super-fast speed -- 4.5 megabits per second -- websites load three times as fast as the typical DSL pace. Before, Efstratis wasn't even getting close to DSL speed of 1.5 mbps from the so-called T-1 line installed by SBC Communications Inc., the dominant local phone company in Nevada and California.

Wide-area wireless networks are on the brink of deployment nationwide. Although fiber-optic cable is considered the ultimate high-speed connection -- Verizon Communications Inc. is investing $2.5 billion to wire 3 million homes in two years -- wireless broadband technology is advancing at such a torrid pace that it could match hard-wired cable and DSL in popularity.

Cellphone pioneer Craig McCaw has put two companies together to develop citywide wireless clouds, starting in Jacksonville, Fla., and St. Cloud, Minn. Flarion Technologies Inc. is delivering broadband speed to a few thousand cellphone customers with a system similar to SkyPilot's. A consortium of companies is installing free service in Hermosa Beach. Ottawa Wireless Inc. recently completed a system covering Grand Haven, Mich., offering mobile wireless Internet connections.

Hot Spot, based in Reno, plans to add SkyPilot gear to its Lake Tahoe service area by the end of this week. SkyPilot, based in Belmont, Calif., is in talks with other companies to install its equipment in various U.S. and overseas regions.

SkyPilot's wireless system appears to be a major step forward for technology that gets around the chokehold that cable and local phone companies have on access to homes and small businesses. It has won kudos from the Federal Communications Commission and was named one of the 10 hottest technologies at June's Supercomm 2004 telecommunications conference.

"In the last few years, a whole new generation of wireless broadband equipment has been developed," said Chelsea Fallon, a special assistant at the FCC's broadband division.

SkyPilot, which has raised $29.4 million in venture capital since its start four years ago, built its system on conventional wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, technology that originally was aimed at serving a small indoor market (think bookstore or coffee shop). But SkyPilot boosted the power and added a mesh network -- a series of antennas that talk with one another as well as with the main gateway that connects the entire system to the nation's phone network and the Internet.

That makes it something much different from the average Wi-Fi hot spot. SkyPilot Chief Executive Mark B. Johnson said it's robust enough to support a national network that could complement -- or compete head-on with -- phone and cable companies for voice and data service.

"This could serve as a complete replacement for that last mile of wire into the home," Johnson said, acknowledging that financing such a prospect may be years away.

The system is cheaper than wired or other wireless networks. One 18-inch-high multi-directional gateway, which can serve thousands of computers, has a list price of $2,499. An extender that expands the network costs $499. The foot-high connector antenna on or in a customer's house runs $349.

A typical T-1 line can cost up to $700 to install at just one business, although the price can be waived with a long-term contract. Monthly T-1 line service fees are $400 to $800, compared with the DSL-like prices that providers probably will charge with SkyPilot equipment.

SkyPilot may have a leg up on most competitors, many of which are still in the research or testing phase.

"Their advantage is that their solution is here today," said Christopher Rice, director of research technology at AT&T Labs in Menlo Park, Calif. AT&T Corp. has been working on a combination of wireless and power-line technologies to get around the so-called last mile into customers' homes and offices.

Indeed, some major cable and phone companies are quietly looking into SkyPilot's network. They're keen on its touted ability to be upgraded easily, quickly and cheaply to newer and faster Wi-Fi technology standards as they are developed.

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