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Fixed wireless finds its niche

Alternative for high-speed Internet access is gaining fans among businesses in underserved areas

Special to The Globe and Mail

With his fibre-optic cable provider buried in debt, Sean Laibovitz turned to the airwaves for an alternate solution to his company's high-speed Internet access needs.

In making a switch to wireless, Mr. Laibovitz, director of information services for Markham, Ont.-based commercial printer PLM Group Ltd., is following a trend that is offering new hope of a resurgence in the wireless Internet access business.

Like many small and medium-sized businesses located in suburban industrial parks and highway strips, PLM has fewer choices for high-speed Internet access services than its competitors in downtown cores. Yet, a growing dependence on e-business and data communications is making connectivity a key priority for businesses everywhere.

"There's a huge pent-up demand," says Paul Lamontagne, president and chief executive officer of Milton, Ont.-based Look Communications Inc., one of many telecommunications providers that has struggled until now to find a viable market for fixed-wireless access -- a technology designed to supply homes and businesses with the broadband radio connections as fast as fibre, coaxial cable or the high-speed phone line service known as DSL (digital subscriber line).

Look, along with several other companies, sunk large sums into building an infrastructure for these services during the height of the dot-com boom, only to find the competition fierce and the demand slow to materialize.

But now, Look is making a fresh effort to sell its services to suburban businesses and the outlook is promising, says Mr. Lamontagne, who notes that there are many areas where cable or DSL are not available and the cost of laying fibre-optic cable is too high.

"It's amazing how many graphic arts, car dealerships, manufacturing operations and other businesses there are that can't get broadband," he says.

"There is a renaissance in our industry. We're seeing an opportunity, not to go head to head against the old telco monopoly, but to focus on areas where there is no or low competition."

Dean Proctor, vice-president of regulatory affairs for Montreal-based Microcell Telecommunications Inc., another company that has seen its fixed-wireless solutions grounded in recent years, agrees with Mr. Lamontagne's assessment. "It has been one step forward and one step back for us. We are stepping two steps forward now," he says.

Mipps Inc., a Thornhill, Ont.-based wireless service provider that has boasted modest success through the lean period of the past few years, is now enjoying one of its best quarters ever, having achieved its revenue projections for the whole of 2003 in the year's first 40 days, says president Sharon Vinderine, who declines to give a figure for the privately held company's revenues.

"We've seen an increase in the willingness of businesses and institutions to choose wireless as an option. Companies that previously wouldn't even consider us are now choosing us," she says.

Brian Boyd, president and chief executive officer of Calgary-based TeraGo Networks Inc., says his company is adding 40 new business customers a month to the more than 700 it has signed up over the past two years.

Both Mr. Boyd and Ms. Vinderine attribute their success to a focus on their niche market and a conservative approach to deploying their technology. They contrast this to the Field of Dreams' "build it and they will come" philosophy that inspired some service providers to build wide infrastructures in the expectation that a market would materialize.

"It's the 'build it and make it profitable before you go on to the next' philosophy that makes us successful," says Ms. Vinderine.

Instead of installing expensive large transmitters to cover a wide area, Mr. Boyd says his company uses small radios to pinpoint the areas where its customers and potential customers are located.

So deployed, he says, wireless can also be far more cost effective than fibre-optic cable. "With fibre, you put it [the cable] down a street, punch it out to buildings and try to get every customer. With our system, we can deliver capacity down to a single customer level and build from there."

TerraGo and its rivals are focusing on business customers whose need for broadband connectivity is great enough to support monthly fees beginning at $300 and usually far higher. Ms. Vinderine says her customers pay $2,000 a month on average.

What wireless companies can now offer to business customers, according to Mr. Boyd, is a service that is as robust and reliable as an equivalent fibre-optic service.

Mr. Laibovitz says his company's experience with wireless bears this out. PLM's decision to install a wireless access system was precipitated by concerns about the imminent bankruptcy of the fibre-optic cable service it was using. As it turned out, the fibre operator was taken over by another company and the service was not interrupted.

PLM opted to keep the fibre connection, but install a TeraGo wireless link as well, so that it would no longer have to rely on a single point of access for Web-based applications that had become a crucial part of the printing company's day-to-day business.

The wireless and fibre access services now work together in such a way that PLM employees and customers do not know or care whether they are linking up over wires or airwaves.

"But we know we have strong reliable connections from both providers, and out we go. We have seen the exact same level of service with no interruptions, no hiccups. It just sits there and works one hundred per cent all the time," Mr. Laibovitz says. Where wireless has the advantage is that it is quicker to install, he adds, noting it would be easy for PLM to increase the capacity of its wireless "in a heartbeat, if these guys [the fibre operators] go under."
Plugging unplugged

A new generation of wireless technology is ready to help carriers fulfill an old promise of bringing high-speed Internet access to small towns and unserved suburban areas.

"It's a breakthrough," says Francis Paquet, product manager for Shift at Montreal-based Telecom Inc. Developed by Cambridge, Ont.-based ComDev International Ltd., Shift is a new technology based on the International Telecommunications Union's next-generation standard for fixed wireless access.

Previous attempts to bring wireless broadband access to consumers failed because it proved expensive to install antennas and other equipment in homes and small offices. As a result, there were not enough subscribers to justify the millions on building their infrastructure, Mr. Paquet says.

What is different, he says, is that the new technology is based on the same standard used by mobile phone carriers, such as Bell Mobility Inc. and Telus Corp., which would be able to deliver high-speed access with their existing infrastructure.

Homeowners, meanwhile, will be able to use the service with relatively cheap indoor antennas they could buy at retail stores and install themselves.

This is one of several new "plug and play" technologies now offering a realistic prospect of delivering broadband services to hitherto unplugged communities, says Dean Proctor, vice-president of regulatory affairs for Montreal-based Microcell Telecommunications Inc., whose company has just finished testing another flavour of next-generation fixed wireless.

Inukshuk, a subsidiary now fully owned by Microcell, has long been seeking to implement an ambitious plan to deliver wireless broadband in populous southern areas, to build a critical mass for a service that would also be delivered to smaller northern communities. But, until now, the cost of installing antennas in homes was hard to justify in a market where consumers expect to pay less than $50 a month for broadband access, Mr. Proctor says.

"But the technology has evolved and is now being proven such that you can deploy broadband wireless access equipment in much smaller sectors and still have a very positive business case.

Having struggled for years to get Inukshuk's plans off the ground, he says, "Now, we're at the launching point."
Kevin Marron

© The Globe and Mail

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