Wireless Cowboys – The Book!

It is still in progress, but I finally broke the six months of writers block and got in a solid three hours of writing tonight to catch up with the book timeline and fill in a few things I had bypassed.

Just to show that I have actually written something, here is an excerpt. Thanks for reading!

Wireless Cowboys Chapter 4: Wireless Pioneers

I was late.

It was 7:15am on Saturday morning, when my phone rang. Groggy and tired from being out until 3am at a band gig the night before, I picked up the phone. Monique Ellert, a very sharp co-worker who had been accompanying me on sales visits around the region, was on the line.

“I am sitting here at the Log Cabin with Gordie, and we are wondering if you are planning to join us.”

I had completely blown off the meeting. Thankfully, I had asked Monique to come along and she was making up for my failures at the moment.

“Tell him I will get there as soon as I can.”

I threw on some clothes, jumped in the car and headed for town.

The Log Cabin is a rustic, old-school restaurant, located in Gering, Nebraska, sitting astride the original Oregon Trail. The scene that morning was a typical Saturday morning at any rural gathering spot. Farmers and ranchers were sitting at their tables drinking black coffee, talking about the weather and poking at greasy portions of breakfast food.

I walked in about 7:45 and spotted Gordie and Monique. Gordie Wilkins was a big man, slightly red-faced and gregarious with a big smile and a welcoming demeanor. Monique was at the table with him, the picture of sharp professionalism, with her hair pulled back and a look of disdain on her face when she saw my condition.

I was a wreck. I was wearing wrinkled clothes picked up off the floor, my hair was an unruly mop and I smelled like a combination of stale beer and cigarettes. I had a splitting headache and sad-sack attitude to go along with my disheveled appearance. As I sat down and took off my battered black leather jacket, Gordie chuckled and made light of my sad condition. I grabbed a cup of coffee and did my best to pull things together.

The meeting was in late 1999, and I was not in a good place. I felt like I was on the wrong side of several trends. Our base of dialup customers was still growing, but the growth rate had tapered off as Sprint and Qwest started to turn up DSL service in our service areas. We did have a few DSL customers in three towns in our service area, but Qwest blocked us from their territory and Sprint had recently sent me notice that they were going to disconnect the copper circuits we had been using to deliver DSL service. Their prices for DSL also looked like a death sentence for dialup. Not very many people were going to want to spend $50/month for a phone line and $20/month for a 56kbs dialup account when they could get 384kbps DSL for the same price. What had started out as a great relationship between the ISPs and telephone companies was about to take a big turn against the ISPs, and my business was in a bad position.

I went through my litany of problems for a while until Gordie stopped me. He told us about a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer and only had a short time to live. From that perspective, my problems didn’t seem like very much to worry about. “Your problems can be solved,” he said and that finally brought me out of my self-induced pity party. I stopped complaining and talking about my problems and started to ask him questions.

Gordie had been referred to me as someone who knew a lot about wireless technology, long range microwave connections in particular. He was a microwave tech at KN Energy, an energy company that maintained a massive gas pipeline structure across the Western United States. In addition to their pipelines, they also had a very sophisticated telecommunications network that ran on microwave connections and was not dependent on wireline or cellular telephone networks. Early on, KN had approached the phone companies to deliver 56k and T1 facilities to their pipeline stations, but the cost of lines to the remote locations was very high and the service was so unreliable that KN made the decision to build their own network.

KN had microwave towers at many of their pipeline stations and at strategic points between stations, and the segment that passed through Gering ended up in Casper, Wyoming on one side and Denver on the other. Typically the towers were 25-30 miles apart, as going longer distances made it harder to maintain a reliable connection. Gordie was an old-timer, a veteran who had been taking care of the systems since they first came online, climbing towers when needed and doing the repair work and equipment swaps as needed to keep the network operational.

KN was also partnered up with Metricom to offer the Ricochet wireless service. Although the consumer side of the Ricochet system was appealing and inexpensive, the back end technology was cumbersome and costly, funneling all user traffic back through a series of gateways and backbone connections to a single access gateway in Silicon Valley. For all of its limitations, the Ricochet system was pretty cool and people in Western Nebraska liked it. It made me think that maybe there was another way to use wireless to deliver Internet to end users. The phone companies were going to take away our ability to offer DSL and it was a matter of time before they took away our dialup customers. Was there a way to bypass the phone companies and offer something affordable and fast enough to compete with DSL?

In my desperation to find something other than DSL that could deliver high speed Internet to our customers, I had come across the ISP-Wireless mailing list, which was populated by people who were experimenting with wireless Internet. On a whim, I called one of the most active in the group, a fellow by the name of Marlon Schaefer, and asked him a few questions. He basically said to get some equipment and try it out and recommended a vendor called Teletronics. A couple of weeks before the meeting with Gordie, I had received a box that contained a 2.4ghz 802.11 access point, a couple of PCMCIA wireless cards an omni antenna and a grid antenna. I set it up and it was pretty cool to connect up to my network at 1Mbps speeds without a wire, but my excitement was short lived. I left the building with my laptop and wireless card to see how far away I could get and the signal was gone once I got a few feet outside of the building. I just couldn’t see how I could build a business model around this technology. I was frustrated, and that is why I had setup this meeting with Gordie in the first place.

Monique gave me a couple of Excedrin and I started to feel better. We finished up breakfast and went to my office to look at the equipment and draw on the white board. Gordie gave me a very basic primer on how microwave works, and Monique and I started to sketch out some ideas on how we might be able to use this technology to deliver high speed Internet to our customers.

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