SkyPilot Flying High
Back in 2000 when SkyPilot Network was founded, the plan was to become a wireless network operator. I caught up with company CEO Mark Johnson at Supercomm to hear how that plan has changed over the past four years.
When the company's founders started looking at how to use 802.11 to provide reliable network connectivity they saw a number of problems. 802.11a was designed for line-of-site connections but in the real world buildings, trucks, trees and hills can get in the way. As the company started to develop solutions to these problems, SkyPilot realized that there was an opportunity to provide an innovative hardware product to other operators and the business plan changed. Four years later the company is now shipping real products to customers -- the first two purchase orders were from Australia and Malaysia, and test projects are underway with carriers, MSOs, ILECs and enterprise customers in the U.S.
SkyPilot provides an 802.11a based product which can reliably provide fixed wireless connections over a distance of 5-7 miles without a line-of-site installation and with line-of-site over a distance of 19-20 miles. In order to achieve this range, the company has modified the 802.11a software stack so the products are not Wi-Fi compliant. But by using standard silicon, SkyPilot is able to offer a product at practically consumer prices. In "quantity 1" the base station is just $2,499 with mesh extenders another $400 or subscriber units approximately $350. According to Johnson, no other wireless mesh network can provide this kind of range at these price points. "WiMAX is coming, but it will be years before WiMAX products can hit this price range."
But that doesn't make Johnson afraid to jump on the WiMAX bandwagon. "We'll be joining the WiMAX Forum in the next few months," Johnson stated. "We love standards, and we'll be amongst the first to ship a WiMAX product when standardized silicon becomes available." But Johnson points out that WiMAX just doesn't make economic sense today, "why spend 10 times to get the same range and performance that I can give you with 802.11a today?"
The SkyPilot system has a rare FCC exemption, allowing them to operate base stations at 10 watts, helping to provide the long range for 802.11a. The company was able to get this exemption by operating the system as a directional antenna, even though the base station provides full 360-degree coverage. SkyPilot achieves this by using an array of directional antennas, offering a system that can be flexibly mounted, and providing "self-discovery" software that helps to establish and maintain connections between the base station and mesh extender or subscriber units.
The other important innovation is in providing a synchronous connection (versus the asynchronous 802.11a standard) which improves a higher quality of service. "This is a carrier-grade solution," claims Johnson. And apparently carriers are looking at the company's products. "Two years ago carriers wouldn't touch unlicensed spectrum, but this is the only way to reach some customers economically," Johnson explained. One area of strong interest according to Johnson is from cable operators who want to provide data and voice services to the small business market, without provisioning fixed cable infrastructure.
Johnson outlined some of the other opportunities for SkyPilot -- local ILECs looking to get into markets they don't currently serve, enterprise customers wanting to share bandwidth between multiple facilities, and universities looking for cost-effective distribution of data services around a campus.
Larry Dockstader of San Diego based Hispeedwireless.com was standing in the SkyPilot booth and looking at the product as I spoke with Mark Johnson. "I haven't seen anything that competes at this price point and with this kind of flexibility," Dockstader stated. "My competitors are using Motorola's Canopy which is very expensive. I can deploy this for next to nothing." I asked him if Johnson should be charging more for his products. Dockstader smiled, "probably..." Asked whether the lack of conformance to the 802.11 standards was a problem, Dockstader suggested that it was actually an advantage. "It provides an extra layer of security if you can't use standard 802.11a gear to connect."
Overall the advantages from a customer perspective? Dockstader stated, "Cost, non-line of site, closed system for security, and manageability. I want to buy the gear today!" I left as Mark started to take down details on his new customer's requirements.