Firing on Enterprise Cylinders

Uniting to serve enterprise customers across eight states in the Southwest, Midwest, and the South, three local ISPs have merged to form one of the largest regional wireless broadband providers in the country. Chicago-based Sparkplug Inc., Telespectra of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Des Moines' Prairie iNet are merging under the Sparkplug brand.

Backed by Bellevue, Wash.-based Ignition Partners , the new company will provide enterprise customers in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, and Tennessee with high-speed connectivity services using "pre-WiMax" equipment from Motorola and Dragon Wave. The company will also provide carriers with backhaul service over licensed frequencies.

The merger reflects the flourishing state of wireless broadband equipment and technology, says Ignition partner Bill Malloy, who will become managing director of the merged company.

"It's a great time for fixed wireless in terms of where the technology is," comments Malloy. "It's really just in the last two to three years where the technology is now matching up with [enterprise] customers' needs."

The advent of WiMax standards and the spread of "pre-WiMax" systems has opened up a significant opportunity for regional ISPs that no longer need to lease access on big-carrier fiber networks to serve business customers in need of reliable, high-speed connections. Many small and medium-sized businesses have found that large national service providers are unresponsive to their needs and often too expensive.

Regional providers, in contrast, often offer tech support from real human beings, flexible pricing and payment plans, and a knowledge of local business conditions that makes working with them much less headache-inducing.

Equipment vendors have recognized the regional ISPs as an early market for WiMax gear, with suppliers such as SOMA Networks Inc. , with its "FlexMAX Wireless Platform," and Aperto Networks Inc. , offering its PacketMAX 300 indoor/outdoor subscriber unit, releasing products targeted at enterprise users and local service providers. (See WiMax: Ready for Closeup.)

In the case of Sparkplug, the three local ISPs offered complementary strengths, according to Malloy. Prairie iNet has a powerful back-room and operation-support system solution, Telespectra has fashioned a lucrative business in backhaul and point-to-point services, and Sparkplug has built a roster of high-profile business customers in Chicago that need high-speed symmetrical connections.

Telespectra, originally founded to serve carriers, government agencies, and healthcare and educational facilities, recently expanded to serve business customers and now claims to have the largest business broadband network in the Southwest.

"If your business lives and breathes by your broadband connection, and you're using applications like voice and video that require, from synchronous 2 Mbit/s to upwards of 200 Mbit/s, it's not as easy as one thinks as far as that bandwidth being one phone call away," explains Malloy. "With this model we can answer that call for the customer, and provide broadband in increments as you need it."

Former Nextlink Communications CEO Steve Hooper will chair the board of directors of Sparkplug. Jeff Hardesty, CEO of Telespectra, will be managing director for the Southwest region and Prairie iNet founder Neil Mulholland will manage the Midwest region.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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