Building a business wireless net, office window by office window

Brough Turner is building a network that can circumvent both incumbent carriers and the FCC.

Turner, co-founder of Boston-based start-up NetBlazr, is designing what he hopes will deliver inexpensive bandwidth to small and midsize city businesses and undercut incumbent carriers' rent-seeking abilities. Right now NetBlazr is a long way from achieving that goal and Turner, a veteran in the start-up industry, knows there's no guarantee it ever will. But he's cautiously optimistic about the enthusiasm he's received from local businesses interested in his company's services.

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"Right now we're literally three guys and a few unpaid interns," Turner says. "But our idea is to apply the Skype approach to broadband infrastructure. We're building a network, but more importantly we're building a community."

The main problem the company is trying to solve for business users is what Turner calls the "duopoly" of Verizon and Comcast that limits competition for broadband services in the Back Bay area of Boston. He says while there are several backbone providers in the vicinity, most buildings can only receive wireline hookups from Verizon and Comcast. Any other ISP that wants to go to those buildings is effectively priced out of the market, since Verizon and Comcast can charge high rates to competitors for using their infrastructure to deliver service.

So how does NetBlazr plan on getting around this? With a low-power point-to-point radio network that delivers bandwidth literally from window to window. The company's first step is to find a hub building by buying bandwidth from backbone providers such as Cogent Networks, Level 3 and FiberTower. From there, the company transmits the bandwidth from the hub to surrounding buildings using 802.11n radios operating on unlicensed 5GHz spectrum. Turner says these radios can have a radius of up to 500 meters, although he says the goal is to have them powered to travel 200 meters or less wherever possible.

So let's say you're a business right across the street from NetBlazr's hub. You purchase a small three-inch-wide radio that will mount on an office window and receive signals from the hub. From there you also have a radio that points out to another building and provides coverage to the business across the street. This goes on and on until pretty soon you have a network of multiple low-frequency radios connecting with one another and providing inexpensive bandwidth to the whole neighborhood. Turner says this differs from typical Wi-Fi mesh networks because NetBlazr is using separate channels to reduce interference instead of having all the radios share the same frequency.

So how much does this cost? For some businesses, it can cost nothing at all. NetBlazr offers both shared networks and dedicated circuits. The basic shared network service is free and offers upload and download speeds up to 3Mbps. Users can buy into a premium shared circuit for $60 a month and get upload and download speeds up to 50Mbps. For dedicated circuits, where users are guaranteed data rates, there are three options: a 2Mbps dedicated circuit for $50 a month, a 5Mbps circuit for $100 a month and a 10Mbps circuit for $190 a month. All users also have to pay for the initial equipment costs for the 802.11n radios that they'll install near their windows but after that they have the option of getting free service if they don't have high dedicated bandwidth needs.

"We're trying to be the anti-ISP," Turner explains. "Our cost of building the network is near zero and our cost of customer care is extremely low."

Speaking of customer care, how exactly do companies maintain their service quality on NetBlazr's network? Turner says most companies outsource their own network management to IT outsourcing firms in the area. NetBlazr's job is to make sure the network is up and running all while providing client IT outsourcing firms with a complete overview of how the network is operating in real time. This gives them the ability to provision bandwidth, search for optimum pathways and generally keep their clients' networks running to their desired quality.

In other words, it's NetBlazr's job to provide connectivity to the backbone, but network management is something that's done by the community of network users.

"We're focusing first on people that have the worst problems with access to competitive broadband," Turner says. "So we're building out a community of point-to-point links in areas where we can get competitive backhaul."

But if you're hoping that this service will soon be available in your local neighborhood, don't hold your breath. As Turner points out the company only formed a year ago and is still in its pilot program with four customers at the moment. Even so, Turner is cautiously optimistic that the results so far will lead to bigger and better things.

"We're just in the pilot stage but the reception has been incredible," he says.

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