Case Study: Home-Grown Corporate WLAN Breeds Success

Thursday Sep 27th 2001 by Gerry Blackwell
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Unable to find an affordable WAN solution for his rural insurance offices, one Canadian entrepreneur took up the challenge and built his own. His business is now reaping multiple benefits.

Roy Brister would have been an eager customer for some enterprising wireless ISP eager to branch out into providing network integration services. But three years ago in rural eastern Ontario, where Brister operates a chain of insurance brokerage offices, The Brister Group, no such animal existed.

So Brister built his own 2.4 GHz wireless network to link the company's widely separated facilities—at a cost of close to $330,000. Now he's looking at the possibility of selling excess capacity to other businesses in the area that want high-speed Internet service.

Brister's is an interesting story for a couple of reasons.

One thing it tells you is that if a non-technical insurance guy from the boonies can build his own wireless network from scratch, surely others can do likewise.

Granted, Brister was lucky enough to find a technology partner in his own backyard, APT Prophet Technologies Inc., an IT systems integrator with some related wireless experience.

But Brister was involved every step of the way. "I'm a hands-on kind of guy," he says, understating the case just a little. "You'll find climbing gear in our trunks [to get up and down radio towers]. We design it and we do the path studies [to determine line of sight between towers]."

Remote possibilities
The other thing this story tells you is that you might have to look in some unlikely places if you want to find fixed wireless applications that need your network integration services. Including out in the country.

Mind you, Brister's case may be unique. His business grew over a few years out of his original small-town insurance brokerage. He started buying out other brokers in nearby towns who were struggling and installing his own successful management procedures and technology.

Three years ago, he found himself with a chain of six offices in small towns spread over about 60 miles of countryside near Ottawa, Canada's capital city.

Brister's long distance telephone bill was astronomical—it was long distance between each pair of offices and the main mode of communication was phone. He also had separate client and product databases running on PCs—plus the staff to maintain and use them—in each office.

Brister's idea was that if he could link the offices in a wide area data network, he could get "economies of scale," such as being able to run just one customer database for the whole company.

And he could centralize his specialized staff and get people in the offices doing what they did best instead of being generalists.

Brister's first move was to ask the local phone company, Bell Canada, for help linking the computers in his five offices. The phone compnay came back to him with a plan that would put dedicated 56-Kbps lines into each office. And for this Bell wanted about $6,500 a month.

It still makes Brister chortle with disgust. He told Bell thanks but no thanks and went looking for alternatives.

Like a good neighbor
Not long afterward, he heard about a school district in remote western Canada that was using 2.4 GHz radios from Wi-LAN Inc. of Calgary to link its far-flung schools and provide them with high-speed Internet service.

His application was very similar, Brister realized. He decided to follow this lead.

A little over two years ago he went live with his network. It took more hops than he thought to link all the offices—14 altogether. But the short hops, along with top-quality antennas, make for a rock-solid network that rarely if ever goes down.

Many of the 12-Mbps Wi-LAN radios are located on municipal water towers, which is a very cost effective solution—he pays about $200 rent a year to the towns and has no construction or tower costs.

Brister claims that with what he knows now and current equipment prices, he could build the network today for more like $170,000.

Ironically, with carrying costs on the capital, he admits the actual final bill probably comes pretty close to the $6,500 a month Bell was if you amortize over five years.

"But I'm in total control," Brister points out. "And I don't have to keep sending checks to Bell or some other outfit forever."

Plus, he gets multi-megabit throughput between offices instead of 56 Kbps. With the addition of a 1-Mbps Internet service, he has a communications system the envy of many big-city companies.

Economic equation
In fact, despite the hefty capital investment, Brister insists the network is paying for itself. His long distance phone bill has been reduced by $1,500 to $2,000 a month because the company now mostly uses e-mail to communicate.

As planned, he eliminated much of the duplication of effort in the offices and has employees working more effectively and efficiently as a result.

"When people ask me what the system cost, I tell them, 'It cost me nothing,'" he says.

The network was also part of forward-planning strategy. Brister knows that soon his insurance company suppliers are going to require he do business with them over the Web—some already are demanding it—and that will require significant bandwidth. With the fixed wireless network, he's ready.

Brister insists he doesn't want to be in the business of reselling bandwidth, but he may end up in it anyway. Other companies in the towns and villages his network passes are already knocking on his door asking him for a piece of the pipe.

He's just beginning to experiment with giving it to them. "As long as it doesn't interfere with our operations," he says. "It might help defray some of our costs too." No kidding.

The availability of broadband services can change the economic outlook of a region. As Brister notes, when you have a low-cost—low rent, low labor cost—area like his near a high-cost area like Ottawa, there is real opportunity to lure businesses to your turf and increase the tax base.

So the big question is, if demand for bandwidth exists now and there is the possibility of more arising, where were—where are—the wireless entrepreneurs?

This article was first published on 802.11 Planet, an internet.com site.

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