Can Towerstream Make $$ With Free Wi-Fi?
That's the chicken-and-egg question facing the wireless supplier, which is looking for a way to increase its potential beyond its historic practice of providing low-cost broadband to businesses as a T-1 replacement. At the Open Mobile Summit on Wednesday, Towerstream CEO Jeff Thompson gave a presentation on the public Wi-Fi network Towerstream launched in New York City this summer, which has eye-popping stats like being able to deliver downstream data rates of almost 80 Mbit/s to a laptop right outside the entrance to Penn Station. He also chatted with Light Reading Mobile's Sarah Reedy:
Using its WiMax-based technology -- the same technology Towerstream uses to deliver fixed-wireless broadband services to businesses in 12 large metro markets around the country -- Towerstream first built a backbone "ring" around Manhattan's man-made canyons and then linked its microwave antennas to more than 1,000 Wi-Fi access points to deliver Internet service to ground level. Through an advertising partner this summer Towerstream traded four hours of free service to users who would agree to a marketing transaction -- downloading an app, using a "daily deal" coupon or watching some ads on their phone.
Though Thompson wouldn't divulge exact performance numbers -- we may learn more on Towerstream's quarterly earnings call next week -- Towerstream is already moving ahead with plans to launch similar networks in San Francisco and Chicago sometime soon. According to Thompson the Wi-Fi strategy is targeted at a desirable if not exactly affluent demographic -- the 18-to-34-year-old user who may not have a lot of disposable income, but is Internet-savvy and knows how to find the best deals when it comes to connectivity.
"There are a lot of people between 18 and 34 who know how to get online for cheap," Thompson said. While big carriers don't like to talk about low-end pricing, Thompson sees the bottom part of the wireless market as a place that is ripe for growth -- and it won't come from so-called "4G" plans from the big carriers, especially since almost all those plans now come with a data-use cap.
"Frankly, a lot of those plans are just too expensive for a lot of people to use," Thompson said. "These are people who will walk a half an hour to use free Wi-Fi, or walk a half hour to a retail outlet where they can pay cash for their cellular phone."
Yet that same demographic, along with the rest of the world, is hungry for more mobile data -- a need users are increasingly satisfying via a Wi-Fi connection, either at a business that offers the hookup for free or via a subscription plan through a service like Boingo or iPass. Towerstream's plan is to allow advertisers to pay Towerstream so that users can access the Wi-Fi for free, simply by doing a quick transaction at the log-in screen. In addition to being able to reach a large audience quickly -- Towerstream had one day this summer with more than 500,000 sessions on its network -- Towerstream can offer advertisers extremely granular location-based control due to the proximity of user to an access point.
"You can have a daily deal ad that only reaches someone who is 300 feet away from the store," Thompson said. On the other end of the scale, Towerstream is also a potential partner for large service providers like AT&T or Verizon, who are now building their own public Wi-Fi hot spots to alleviate cellular coverage pressure, both in urban areas and in high-congestion spots like sports stadiums. Though Towerstream hasn't announced any big-carrier deals, the potential for a bigger revenue stream has been one potential reason why Wall Street players have juiced the company's stock price over the past year or so, moving from around a dollar a share for most of 2009 to a $3-to-$5 range throughout 2011.
If it fails to nab a big-name partner, Towerstream might also just start branding the service under its own name, bringing a new twist to the business that Thompson and his team started way back in 2001, well before the current mobile data craze could have been imagined. But with low costs of entry -- Thompson said it cost Towerstream less than $10 million to build its New York network, and with just about every device having a Wi-Fi chip these days Towerstream doesn't have to supply users with any new hardware or devices -- it's an experiment that's worth at least trying, and could be worth a lot more if Towerstream can attract both advertisers and users to the "data oases" it is building.
— Paul Kapustka is editor and founder of Sidecut Reports, an independent research firm that specializes in wireless technologies. Special to Light Reading. He is also the editor of Mobile Sports Report, a new site that lives at the intersection of mobile-social technologies and sports.