Planet Halo covers the waterfront

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By Gerry Blackwell

Finding new markets for Wi-Fi access service has become a challenge. Most homes and businesses in lucrative built-up areas already have wireline services as cheap as wireless, as fast or faster, and arguably more reliable. Why would anyone want to change?

It is precisely in this spirit that Planet Halo, a subsidiary of Concierge Technologies, based in Los Angeles, developed its business plan. The company aims to provide Wi-Fi access and related services to boat owners – both live and on weekends – at major marinas and ports on the West Coast of the United States. It uses Tropos mesh technology to build the networks.

The first market, Marina del Rey in Los Angeles, is already operational with a handful of customers and a free hotspot for members at the California Yacht Club facilities. The company hopes to have three or four more networks in place at other ports by the end of the year.

Planet Halo, however, plans to be more than just a WISP. It will also offer boat monitoring services, which company president Marc Angell says are in high demand. It will install sensors on board, as well as webcams, to monitor boats for absent owners. He will charge a modest monthly fee ($ 9.95 for access service subscribers) to send them alerts when unauthorized people board the boat, or if it catches fire or the bilge pumps fail. breakdown.

The company will also offer VoIP services, although whether it will partner with an existing provider such as Vonage – with which it has already had exploratory discussions – or provide the service itself remains to be decided.

The fourth leg of the stool is opt-in advertising from local businesses that will run special offers and e-coupons to subscribers on community portals the company sets up for each market. The Marina del Rey portal will be operational by the end of July.

It really is a niche market strategy, but the company believes it can pay off quickly. “We’re going to be making a profit by the end of this year – that’s six months after launch,” Angell says, then backs off a bit. “If we continue to create new networks [in new markets], it grows [profitability] outside. But if you take a single port, the cash flow will be positive within six months. “

Concierge, a holding company, is betting the company on this strategy. It will fall back on Planet Halo and rename itself Planet Halo or Wireless Village, the name of the network integration company it is in the process of acquiring. Wireless Village is currently a partner of Planet Halo responsible for building the marina networks and other commercial infrastructure.

The first market, Marina del Rey, is the world’s largest man-made harbor for small boats, with a population of around 8,000 boats and roughly the same number of people in residences clustered around the harbor.

“However, we don’t focus on residences and businesses, as most already have access through a cable or phone company,” says Angell. “But generally, in the ports [in the boat dock areas], broadband is non-existent or problematic. [Phone companies] having difficulty maintaining a twisted pair [connections] – there are still phone problems.

“We did a round-up of the industry and tried to determine where there was a gap to be filled,” he says. “We have found that most of the ports are reminiscent of Marina del Rey and Ventura. They are so far from [phone company] change that [broadband DSL service] is not available.

In Marina del Rey, Planet Halo has been operational for a few weeks. It had five of the six Tropos hotspots in place at the time of writing, covering 75% of the boating community. The last radio was to be installed within days, giving Planet Halo 100% community coverage.

Access services are available now – $ 29.95 per month, $ 9.95 per week, or $ 5.95 per day. A few subscribers are testing the beta version of vessel monitoring services. VoIP service is more distant, although subscribers can now use softphone services such as Skype.

The next project for Planet Halo is Ventura, just up the beach. It is currently under development. When we reached Angell, he was in the field doing site surveys and talking to Ventura owners about leasing sites to place the company’s radios. It’s a smaller community than Marina del Rey, with a few thousand boats, Angell estimates. But there is also a commercial fishery with potential clients who work and in some cases live on board year round.

The other ports on the list for the company’s 2007 deployment: San Diego, San Pedro, Long Beach, Santa Barbara. Seattle and other communities in the Puget Sound area are also possible.

There may also be spillovers from the main activity. Planet Halo is an authorized distributor of Tropos in North America. He is already discussing with the town hall of Ventura the establishment of a Wi-Fi access zone in the city center and involving Tropos in the discussions.

Angell says the company is not absolutely tied to Tropos as an infrastructure provider for port networks. “If someone came out on the road with half-price mesh wireless equipment, we could change,” he says. In the meantime, Tropos is a key partner. “This is an exceptional company with a great product and excellent technical and sales support,” he says. “We looked at all the equipment and chose Tropos as the best.”

The main selling point of mesh technology in general and Tropos in particular is the economy and speed to market which result from the larger coverage area that each radio offers beyond Wi-Fi technology. conventional – and WiMax -. It would cost a lot more to implement a network like the one in Marina del Rey using WiMax, Angell says, and it would take longer to get it up and running.

Broadband services are not entirely non-existent in the ports that Planet Halo targets. The providers have been offering hotspot and hotzone services at west coast marinas for a few years, including Marina del Rey. But they can’t offer as good or as reliable a service as Planet Halo, especially for cruise ships, Angell says, and they can’t offer the ancillary services.

“Once you leave the [marina] building and getting off onto the platform, you’re usually out of reach, ”he says. “And with the [Wi-Fi] hotspot technology, you can’t do surveillance or VoIP. This is a whole different matter. Mesh technology is like Wi-Fi on steroids.

Maybe, but one can’t help but wonder why, if it is such a dynamic market and a feasible business plan, someone – companies already offering Wi-Fi hotspots – Fi and hotzones in marinas, for example – haven’t done so yet.

On the other hand, Angell is right about one thing. “I think a lot of people made the mistake of going to an area with a mesh to replace wired internet access,” he says. “I don’t think people who have wireline service are going to change, or at least not yet.” If mesh service providers can survive in underserved rural and suburban markets, why not in marinas? At least Planet Halo will regain a population density similar to urban markets.

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