Ad Hoc Fixed Wireless Networks--Should Carriers Be Afraid?

“Freemium” wireless network claims to be a compelling alternative to the ISP status quo in cities

"A 'Freemium' approach to radically improving broadband Internet in America," was the topic of a session at last week's popular MassTLC (Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council) Innovation 2010 unConference in Boston. Driven by curiosity, Rebecca attended the session led by Brough Turner, founder of a newly minted startup called netBlazr (no relation to the Telebit NetBlazer of yore). NetBlazr is a wireless ISP with a grand vision to bootstrap a wireless alternative to today's ISP lineup of telcos, cable companies, and line-of-site wireless providers. Using inexpensive Wi-Fi technology NetBlazr plans to rely on business customers to build ubiquitous, cooperative networks in densely populated urban areas.    

Here's the vision. NetBlazr provides upstream Internet connectivity via cheap metropolitan fiber. For $299, businesses buy a package of Ubiquiti Wi-Fi radios, and a router from Latvian-based MicroTik. The user (or an integrator of the user's choice) installs the radios near an office window. Assuming others within range have also installed the service package, the customer cranks up the gear and is up and running with a free, broadband Internet connection that rivals DSL, cable, or FIOS. The more area businesses that deploy the equipment, the better the service coverage and reliability will be. The idea is that delivering the basic service for free will incent users to purchase and install the equipment, thus financing as well as building the network.

Once the network is established and reliable, NetBlazr envisions that money will flow its way when customers upgrade to premium paid services that deliver higher "dedicated" bandwidth. For its pilot service in downtown Boston, NetBlazr's current list prices are $39.95/month for 2Mbps service, $49.95/month for 5Mbps, and $189.95/month for 10Mbps. Brough Turner claims that in areas of Boston where Verizon has little competition, it routinely charges in the range of $2,200/month for 10Mbps.

NetBlazer is not alone. A company named MonkeyBrains is piloting a similar service aimed at residential and small businesses in the Mission and SOMA Districts of San Francisco. Users pay $250 or so for the setup of a rooftop antenna. MonkeyBrains' pilot service will be free through the end of February 2011, and after that the company says rates will "be competitive"--whatever that means.

If you were an established infrastructure-based ISP in a metropolitan area with businesses packed in cheek to jowl, would you be worried? We welcome your thoughts.

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