Big Antennas ... Big Sales Opportunities
Capitalizing on a broadband wireless trend, this VAR expects $3 million in additional sales this year.
Networking and wireless technologies VAR Business Information Group, Inc. (BIG) (York, PA) made a business strategy decision in 1998 that today would make many of its rivals wonder if it had the ability to predict the future. It made the decision to expand into outdoor wireless technologies -- also known as fixed wireless and broadband wireless -- a few years before it became mainstream. Because of advances in technology, which now allow what was once known literally as a last mile technology to reach distances of nearly 70 miles, many businesses in vertical markets such as banking, education, and government are deploying broadband wireless solutions to bring their remote facilities together at a fraction of the cost of purchasing additional T1 lines.
Broadband Wireless Mistakes Are Costly, Potentially Dangerous
Even though BIG had years of experience implementing LANs, it still had to contend with learning a whole new skill set in order to make the transition from deploying wireless LANs to WWANs (wireless wide area networks). There are at least a half dozen differences that BIG, like other early adopters of outdoor wireless technology, had to discover on its own. The first major difference with outdoor wireless technology is the cost of the cabling that runs from the antenna to the radio. "Outdoor wireless cabling costs up to $15 per foot compared to indoor, Cat-5 Ethernet cabling, which costs 5 cents per foot," says John Dolmetsch, president of BIG. "The cost difference, coupled with outdoor wireless cabling's sensitivity to bending, can easily lead to a $1,500 cabling mistake." Dolmetsch's engineers have become devoted adherents to the phrase "measure twice, cut once."
Another difference between indoor wireless and outdoor wireless installations involves building structure integrity. Because indoor wireless installations occur within the workplace, VARs don't have to consider whether a building can support WLAN access points. Outdoor deployments, on the other hand, may use water towers, poles, abandoned buildings, and other structures, which may not be safe for engineers to scale up, walk on, and install equipment on. Additional tests are often necessary to determine the safety of a potential WWAN access point installation.
Another difference VARs may not initially consider when getting into outdoor wireless is how heavily weather factors into the deployment. For example, having two people scale a 300-foot tower to install a 500-pound dish during inclement weather not only will slow down the project significantly, but will also raise obvious safety issues.
Inside the four walls of a company, on the other hand, there are minimal events that impact the strength of an RF (radio frequency) signal. If, for example, a warehousing company reorganizes its products from one location to another, an access point may have to be adjusted to accommodate any RF interference. But, when it comes to outdoor wireless concerns -- especially in the case of fixed wireless deployments -- there are at least three obstacles VARs have to keep in mind. "Many fixed wireless deployments are line-of-sight dependent, and therefore tree growth has to be taken into consideration," says Dolmetsch. "New construction and the presence of competing wireless signals are two other factors that have to be accounted for as much as possible -- especially in urban areas, where high-rise building construction and competing wireless signals are more likely to present themselves."
If a VAR deploys transmitters that broadcast signals using unlicensed frequencies (no fees to use), and signal interference sets in, the VAR can use signal-tracking devices to locate the origin of the interference. In most cases the offending party can switch to another signal, which will reconcile the problem. In some instances, the VAR may have to change the transmission frequency -- either to an alternative unlicensed frequency or by purchasing a license for a controlled frequency from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Making such a change is a reminder of another problem that inexperienced outdoor wireless VARs face -- making extra trips up a tower or to the top of a building to determine which components were installed during the installation. "We learned this one the hard way," recalls Dolmetsch. "What makes this even more painful is that every time you send a tech to an outdoor wireless site, you have to dispatch at least two people -- one to scale the tower and another person to be there for safety reasons."
The equivalent of a day's worth of labor may be lost because a WWAN solution -- which may comprise multiple transmitters, amplifiers (called backhaul units), antennas, routers, switches, and remote monitoring equipment -- wasn't properly documented when it was initially installed. Even if a VAR knows that a specific component is the culprit for the system's failure, it cannot replace the component without knowing its specific make, model number, and serial number. If that information wasn't captured in the beginning, the VAR has to send someone up the tower to get the information before it can order a replacement component.
In their attempt to learn a new technology, it's easy for VARs new to outdoor wireless technology to forget to document all their work. Failing to record all the parts and labor that make up the overall project, however, leads to wasted time spent sending techs back to a job site. Additionally, it results in inaccurate billing and difficulty performing accurate job estimates.
"It took us about 18 months to fine-tune the paperwork process," recalls Dolmetsch. "We created a checklist system and hired project managers to make sure our techs documented each job to our specifications." To help them handle the tedious documentation details more efficiently, Dolmetsch equipped his field workers with wirelessly enabled handheld devices. "As soon as they are able to record information about a wireless installation -- well before they scale any towers or tall buildings -- they enter the information into their Compaq iPaq devices and wirelessly transmit that information to our database via a Web browser. We determined that if information wasn't captured and saved at the time of deployment, we would always have incomplete documentation."
Keep Climbing The WWAN Learning Curve; Success Will Follow
BIG conquered the outdoor wireless learning curve at a time when outdoor wireless technology made the transition from cutting edge to mainstream. In 2002, the VAR did $500,000 in outdoor wireless equipment and service sales. By the end of 2003, outdoor wireless equipment and service sales totaled $4 million. By the end of 2004, BIG expects an additional $3 million in overall sales revenue growth. "Today, wireless products and services comprise 75% of our business," says Dolmetsch. "This trend will make or break the company in the next 36 months."
BIG sees service as a primary means for VARs to distinguish themselves in wireless installations. "Most clients realize that their wireless deployments have to be built to telecom carrier standards," says Dolmetsch. "This means that successful VARs need to offer 24/7 support, remote monitoring, and wireless failover capabilities." BIG's commitment to wireless service offerings and support helped it land a $2 million install with the town of Ocean City, MD. The municipality wanted to deploy a fixed wireless solution that would enable 14 remote subscribers -- including organizations such as fire stations, public works, planning and zoning authorities, and airports -- to create a centralized phone system. "Previously, the municipality was being charged for local calls among facilities, and it made 1,000 calls a week," says Dolmetsch. "Plus, it managed its PBX [private branch exchange] servers across 14 data centers. By deploying a fixed wireless solution that can accommodate data and voice traffic, the municipality was able to consolidate its data centers from 14 to 1 and reduced its file servers from 25 to 4." Additionally, the municipality eliminated local phone call fees among its facilities, and it eliminated multiple, monthly T1-line lease costs, which were approximately $450 per month. According to Dolmetsch, the town of Ocean City will realize a complete payback on its fixed wireless investment within 18 months, and it will have 10 times the bandwidth that it had previously.
One of the primary reasons county and municipality installations are a good fit for VARs like BIG is that such entities have to stay up and running 24/7. They seek 24/7 support and redundancy features, which ensure their wireless solutions can automatically switch to alternative services in the event one of the main system components fails.
Understanding its clients' needs and gearing its business to be able to meet those needs has helped BIG flourish in the outdoor wireless market. In hindsight, making the decision to add wireless services to its technology offering was as good as if the company had been given a crystal ball.