Going Wireless: A Conversation with MobileStar

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Date: Thursday, September 27th, 2001, 09:49
Category: Archive

Go2Mac talks to Ali Tabassi, chief technology and development officer of MobileStar, the Airport/802.11b-based wireless Internet provider in public hot spots.

Go2Mac talks to Ali Tabassi, chief technology and development officer of MobileStar, the Airport/802.11b-based wireless Internet provider in public hot spots.

Interview conducted Wednesday, September 19.

Kirn: Thanks for talking with me today. First off, I’m talking to you from the New York City area, where needless to say communication has been tremendously difficult for the last week. Cell phones still remain out of commission, ground lines don’t work, 800 numbers don’t work, modem-based Internet is out, many DSL and cable customers lack service. We certainly appreciate the recent decision to provide service free of charge in this difficult time. Have you received feedback from people in the NYC area affected by the tragedy? And can you speak to MobileStar’s reliability?

Tabassi: We did have some of the stores interrupted the first few days due to one of our service providers’ point of presence being in the World Trade Center; they basically lost their center. We were able to reroute our network and provide service to the people of NY in this critical time of need.

The day of the tragic incident, we heard from several of our customers that the only way they could get word out to their loved ones was through MobileStar. One of our sales executives was in New York City. He stood outside of one of the closed Starbucks stores and connected to the network and basically sat out there and let people who needed some kind of
communication, send e-mails. We heard that through Starbucks and Microsoft . . . that some of their employees were able to send e-mail to their loved ones and corporate headquarters via our Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) network.

Kirn: I’ve certainly heard similar stories. I think we all are really thankful to have that option for communication. When I first planned to do this interview, of course, it was before all of this happened, so I’ll try to move on to some of those other questions!

The first thing you notice about MobileStar, aside from the fact that you’re up almost instantly with Airport on the Mac, is its speed. How fast is it – you have a T1 connection at each location, for 1.5 MBps?

Tabassi: At the minimum, every MobileStar location has a T1 connection, and as traffic expands we add additional T1 lines, or faster.

Kirn: You chose 802.11b as the technology to make MobileStar work. Were
there other formats in the running? How was the concept born?

Tabassi: MobileStar was founded in 1996, literally in the Admirals’ Club in Dallas as the executives were waiting for a flight . . . downloading a 3 meg presentation. They came up with the idea that it would be nice to have wireless broadband connectivity. At that time they founded the company and started looking for a means to start the service. OpenAir (FH) by Proxim was our first product in 1997, in one of the hotels in the Dallas area . . . We have evaluated and tried different technologies to identify what is the best means to provide a reliable Public Access Location(PAL). We signed contracts with Hilton and American Airlines to provide coverage at all American Airlines Admirals clubs and gates and over 100 corporate-owned and operated Hilton hotels. By 1999, we had all the American Airlines’ Admirals Clubs in operation and about 65-70 hotels. By late 1999, when IEEE-802.11b [format used by Airport] became the standards, we decided to be technology agnostic and offer both Wi-Fi and OpenAir in our network. Today we have about 120 hotels operational, and about 80 of them need to be retrofitted with Wi-Fi. Everywhere else we have both Wi-Fi and FH or Wi-Fi only. As Wi-Fi became the standard of choice for enterprises and home networking toward late 2000, we discontinued deployment of OpenAir in our new PALs.

Kirn: Has Apple’s Airport, in terms of technology and marketing, affected MobileStar?

Tabassi: Apple and other PC OEMs embracing of this technology has greatly helped MobileStar and WLAN Industry. In addition, large enterprises such as Microsoft, IBM, and others, by implementing WLAN in their corporations, has helped the industry. Lastly, the cooperation of the Wi-Fi manufacturers in ensuring interoperability between their products through WECA’s interoperability certification has also helped the industry. But definitely, Apple has been the leader in embedding the Wi-Fi or Apple Airport in the laptops themselves, so there is no need for additional PCMCIA cards. And to my knowledge, Apple’s Airport and its software utility has made it a lot simpler for Apple users to identify and connect to the available WLAN in public hot spots.

Kirn: That’s certainly true. It’s terrific under OS X; I don’t even have to open a network control panel — I open my PowerBook and it just works.

Tabassi: Right.

Kirn:How many customers does MobileStar have at this point? What kinds of customers are they?

Tabassi: We are a privately-owned company — we don’t disclose those numbers.

We have a number of sales channels to increase the awareness and to promote the usage of our network: the direct sales channel which focuses on Fortune 500 companies and creates corporate accounts, the PC OEM and Equipment manufacturer channels which have teamed up with Gateway, Dell, IBM, WinBook , D-Link, AmbiCom, Netgear, and more to come are bundling or selling MobileStar service with their products, and retailer and e-tailer
channels which currently have teamed up with CompUSA and MobilePlanet for reselling MobileStar service — we are working to add a few other large resellers to this team.

In addition, interested parties can subscribe to our service(s) by either calling our customer care at 1-800-981-8563, or visiting our web site www.mobilestar.com , or any of MobileStar PAL location with their WLAN enabled laptop or PDA.

I can tell you that a majority of our existing customers are mobile professionals that have a need for connectivity while they’re on the road.

Kirn: And of course, a number of them are our readers! Have you found that most users are going to the pay-as-you-go, prepaid, or unlimited plans? Or some mix of the three?

Tabassi: What the trend has been since coverage is dynamic for the customer – they’re always needing more location to connect — as coverage footprint increases, usage patterns increase. The customers start with metered access, Pay-as-you-go or prepaid first, and as they feel more comfortable with the service and as we increase the number of locations for them to use the service, they convert to a monthly subscription plan or unlimited plan.

Kirn: Well, I can certainly vouch for that. I had a hard time imagining using the unlimited plan, until I tried the service, and got familiar with the speed and convenience. We were all saddened by the failure of Ricochet, but obviously MobileStar takes a radically different approach. What is the profitability picture like for MobileStar, now and in the future?

Tabassi: The main difference between the approach that we have taken versus others is that, first of all, if you look at the management of MobileStar, you will find a lot of seasoned telecommunications managers. I personally have over 20 years of experience in cellular, PCS, paging, etc. So we’ve gone through the development, deployment, expansion , and operation of wireless networks for many years.

Kirn: Starbucks is an obvious location for this service, but what about the future: anything you can reveal about future expansion plans? What kinds of additional features might we expect in the future?

Tabassi: Our goal is to providing our service in places where mobile professionals need them most. Today we have roughly 700 PALs operation

al. These PALs are made up of nearly all of domestic American Airlines Admirals Clubs, over 500 Starbucks stores in NY city, Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Dallas, Houston, and Austin, the entire gates of DFW, Austin, TX, Louisville, KY, Sioux Falls airports and very soon the entire San Jose airport. Our goal is to expand into over 8000 locations by 2003. For a most up to date list of available locations please visit http://www.mobilestar.net/locations/page5a.asp . We are aggressively looking to expand our presence in as many airports as we can make agreements with, hotels — we are still very active on providing access in common areas of hotels at this time, and other venues such as meeting centers. In the northeast corridor, train stations are other areas that might make sense to add coverage.

Kirn: Well, I’d certainly love to have it Grand Central or Penn Station!

Tabassi: Exactly!

Kirn: We certainly look forward to the growth of the service in the future. Thanks for talking to me today, Ali.

Peter Kirn doesn’t even like Starbucks coffee, but lately you can find him in a metro NYC Starbucks location sucking up bandwidth and sipping Chai Latte. E-mail us with your own experiences for our continuing Going Wireless feature.

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