New twists on Wi-Fi

Extend your reach hundreds of feet or hundreds of miles.

It's a wireless world, some say, conveniently overlooking the giant balls of cables behind every personal computer and every server, router and printer. But many want to expand the wireless world, so let's look at two companies doing just that.

Living in Texas, with miles of open land and homes and businesses scattered throughout low density suburbs, I've always been fascinated by Wireless ISPs. WISPs had a bit of a day before broadband services from cable and phone companies blanketed 90% of U.S. home locations. The cost of wireless towers and equipment, along with the competition from expanding wired broadband reach, have nearly strangled the WISP world.

If you disparage WISPs where H. Dean Cubley, CEO of ERF Wireless, can hear you, he'll tell you about ERF's expanding service offerings in financial services and oil and gas. He'll tell you how small banks in Texas, New Mexico and Louisiana now make money selling the bank's excess wireless bandwidth to customers.

“We replace the T-1s between bank branches with high capacity wireless links,” said Cubley over what else, a wireless phone call. “They get ten times the bandwidth they had with the T-1s, and we help them resell that capacity to customers. With our help, they turn a capital asset into a revenue producing asset.”

Cubley's plan took more work than building some wireless towers on bank buildings. “As far as I know, we're the only company able to meet the security regulations to use wireless for a bank's primary communications.” ERF handles telecommunications, running the bank phones through their own network.

After less than three years, Cubley claims the banks pay off their wireless infrastructure and start saving money they don't have to pay out for data lines, and make money selling bandwidth to customers. The banks pay ERF to monitor and maintain the network. ERF handles the customer details of local businesses riding on the bank networks and sends the banks a check for their portion of the profits.

ERF has done seven bank systems in three states so far. It focuses on regional banks with five to 25 branches, meaning there are thousands of potential customers just in the banking business. The service names are Branch Net, US-BankNet and WiNet System, all connecting to ERF's Enterprise Network Services for the backbone.

Leveraging the cost of the wireless network for more than residential customers makes the model work. Besides banks, ERF supports the now-booming oil and gas domestic production market. “You can only charge a residential wireless customer $30 to $40 per month, but you can charge an oil company two to three times that per day, and they're glad to get it.”

What about the glut of fiber we always hear about? Cubley laughed and said, “Fiber passes right by many of our customers, especially those on the highways, but fiber is too expensive to connect. Besides, fiber works best for long-distance, and our customers need a local loop.”

Too many small WISPs focused on residential business only, and struggled to make any money. So ERF acquires good WISPs in the areas Cubley targets, gaining equipment and expertise in remote areas. That's also brought the company about 10,000 WISP customers it continues to service along with banks and oil and gas facilities that need data connections.

If you have a regional bank in the Texas, New Mexico, and Louisiana area, ERF may be able to cut your costs and make you money. If you have some wireless installations servicing one type of business, you might modify ERF's business model for your own WISP world. After all, a wireless network doesn't care what data from how many companies runs across it.

While WISPs are great for covering hundreds of miles, sometimes you just need your Wi-Fi to go a few hundred more feet. Longer antennas help, along with mounting wireless access points higher to improve their reach. But when you need a flying saucer of Wi-Fi wonder, check out Xirrus.

I saw a Xirrus Wi-Fi Array at the ITEC show in Charlotte. The company offers a high-end, high performance Wi-Fi access point that includes up to 16 radios in a single enclosure, all tuned with radio wave guides for better distance. Xirrus claims twice the range, four times the coverage, and eight times more bandwidth than typical wireless access points, even the expensive ones sold to large companies.

Even better, it has a management system to control and monitor up to hundreds of Arrays (that's a lot of wireless). It also offers weatherproof enclosures for Arrays, allowing one outdoor Array to support large open areas of a campus, for instance.

The tech I spoke to said he was going to put up a temporary network using a single Array to support 800 students taking an LSAT (Law School Admission Test). If Xirrus can do that, it can handle whatever large wireless groups you need to support.

There you go, two wonders of wireless without mentioning the long-hyped and long-delayed WiMAX (Compare WiMAX products). Now you can reach farther and even use your wireless network to pay for itself.

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