Privately held Cometa is the outcome of the initiative called "Project Rainbow," which has been causing quite a buzz in the U.S. WLAN industry since details about the project first leaked back in July (see WLAN USA? and Rainbow to Link WiFi & WAN). "Cometa is Italian for Comet," the company's CEO Larry Brilliant told Unstrung. "So the rainbow has now become a comet." Brilliant!!
Whatever you care to call it, Cometa's WiFi buildout plans are an order of magnitude more ambitious than anything that has been attempted before. "We intend to have a Cometa hotspot five minutes away from anyone in a major metropolitan area in the U.S.," says Brilliant.
He estimates this will require between 25,000 and 50,000 hotspots, maybe more. The largest hotspot rollout so far announced in the U.S. is T-Mobile USA's plans to have 2,000 access points up and running by the end of this year.
Brilliant says that Cometa will put the access points in restaurants, cafes, electronics retailers and other stores, and hotels. "Airports are certainly not off our screen [either]," he says.
"We will start in the top ten MSAs [metropolitan statistical areas] in the U.S. and then work our way through the top MSAs in the country," says Brilliant. Installation will start immediately, he adds.
IBM Global Services will be installing hotspots for Cometa. The company is not revealing its preferred equipment providers. Brilliant would only say they will be "best of breed" and support both the "a" and "b" variants of the 802.11 standard.
The firm plans to offer wireless LAN access through its network to pretty much any service provider that wants it. "Cometa owns the network and access is resold by carriers, ISPs, and other providers."
AT&T will be the first major carrier to offer services using Cometa networks, and Brilliant says the operator is planning to use the network to offer wireless services to its installed base of corporate VPN users. There are, he says, 10 million such users in the U.S., and AT&T has about 40 percent of that market. Corporate VPN users will be the initial target of the wholesale WLAN service, Brilliant says.
What about the backhaul required to connect the hotspots to a broadband Internet connection? "AT&T will be providing adequate backhaul in every location... [exactly how much] will depend on the location." AT&T says that the service will use the AT&T IP backbone network. However, the operator will give no estimates of the cost of providing bandwidth for 25,000-plus hot spots.
So what's in this for service providers? Buying in access from an existing hotspot network without having to build out their own could bring them "significant margins," according to Ted Schell, chairman of Cometa and a general partner at VC firm Apax Partners, which is backing the venture along with 3i Group plc.
Despite the talk of money and margins, no one at Cometa is happy to talk about how much cash is being pumped into the venture. "Let's just say it's more than Ted's salary, and you know these VC guys!" Brilliant quips brilliantly.
However, he did offer a brief glimpse into money matters when Unstrung asked if it was actually a bit late to start planning a WLAN network, when there are already so many other small-scale providers out there. "No one is putting up tens of millions of dollars before the demand curve here," Brilliant rejoined. "Are we too late? No, I think we're right on time."
The management is also not keen to reveal the makeup of the company, in terms of what portion of the venture is owned by each of the partners. "I think one of the disappointments of this conversation is that we can't reveal these details," Schell told reporters after being pressed on the issue on the conference call that officially launched the company this afternoon.
The other big name in this partnership, Intel, is providing technology consultation for the venture and tying it to the launch of its Banias WLAN-compatible processor in the first half of next year. The chipmaker will optimize the radios on the chipset for the Cometa network, according to Mark Christensen, VP and director of Intel Capital's communications sectors.
To be honest, we're not sure how you fine-tune a component that is supposed to entirely conform to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) 802.11 standard. Perhaps Intel has a home-grown data transfer speed boost mode up its sleeve for Banias? Stranger things have happened...
Anyway, readers will no doubt be glad to know that you don't have to use a Banias chipset to access Cometa's network -- they'd just prefer it if you did. The hotspots, says Cometa, will be accessible to anyone that has a standard 802.11 card.
— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung