Spotwave in the House

Any regular mobile user will tell you that using a phone indoors can be a hassle – bad lines, dropped calls, or no signal at all are commonplace occurrances for the cellular desk jockey.

Which is why we're curious about Spotwave Wireless Inc. (Ed. note: Slow news week, isn't it?). The Canadian startup offers a miniature (relatively speaking) two-unit repeater system that it claims is cheaper to buy and install than standard offerings, which are large creatures that lurk in the basement of buildings and scare unsuspecting phone technicians.

These massive units tend to be installed in huge corporate buildings, casinos, and airports, and installation can run to millions of dollars. Spotwave says it is targeting the 98 percent of buildings in the U.S. that are smaller than 100,000 square feet. The main problem concerning coverage in such buildings – where most of us work – is that very often, "cell phones don't work in the meeting room," says Steve Adams, Spotwave's VP of marketing and product development.

Spotwave's repeater, or "coverage unit," which is about the size of a laptop, sits on the roof of a building, or on a windowsill if a user can't get access to the roof. It's connected by skinny cable to a "donor unit," which is about the size of a lunchbox. The donor unit is placed ideally at the center of the worst coverage area in the building.

Spotwave says its units will cover up to 20,000 square feet indoors and have a range of up to 25 miles outdoors. The units wirelessly connect to carrier cell sites. According to Adams, the unit currently supports CDMA, GSM, and TDMA. "We're working on an iDEN version," he says, which would enable the company to work with Nextel Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: NXTL) as well.

Spotwave is currently working with carriers such as AT&T Wireless (NYSE: AWE), T-Mobile USA, and Verizon Wireless; it's also supplying systems to Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and installing boxes in Radio Shack stores.

There does -– at least to Unstrung's beady eyes -– seem to be one small problem with Spotwave's offering. Each box can only be used to boost the cell phone coverage of one particular carrier. In fact, Spotwave's software tunes other services out. And unless a company has religiously standardized on one phone service, its employees will be subscribed to a variety of operators.

That's just the way it is under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, Adams says. "A repeater has to be operated with the blessing of a carrier," he explains, adding (hopefully) that three Spotwave systems could be bought for the price of a standard in-building coverage system.

Spotwave is making revenue from its products now, but it won't divulge how much. "There's no such thing as enough revenue, is there?" says Adams. The company has raised $16.8 million in two rounds of funding to date.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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