Ina Fried

Recent Posts by Ina Fried

Where Calls Are Dropping, Towerstream Sees a Business Opportunity

Frustrated customers see New York and San Francisco as cellular nightmares–places where they are likely to have their calls dropped or their mobile Internet speeds slow to a crawl. But amid all those woes, Towerstream CEO Jeff Thompson sees a potential new business.

The idea, he said, is pretty simple: Identify places where there is a lot of cellular congestion and build Wi-Fi networks there.

Over the next several months, Towerstream plans to expand an existing pilot Wi-Fi zone in New York and also hopes in the next year to add wireless “hot zones” in San Francisco and Chicago.

While its core business is selling Internet service to businesses, Towerstream hopes to wholesale its hot zone networks to cellular carriers looking to improve their performance in congested areas.

“We don’t see that problem going away anytime soon,” Thompson said. “It’s really a real-estate issue, not a technology issue.”

The idea of using Wi-Fi to ease cellular overcrowding doesn’t seem that crazy these days. Just last week AT&T announced its own hot zone plan for San Francisco and New York.

The idea of hot zones is not new for Towerstream either, Thompson said. The company first had the idea about four years ago, but at the time there were few Wi-Fi capable phones and not the kind of mobile data congestion seen in big cities.

For now, though, Towerstream’s announcement is mostly a statement of intent, rather than a detailed plan. The company still has to acquire many of the rooftop rights it needs to build its hot zones, and it hasn’t said where within each city it will offer the wireless connections.

Towerstream also doesn’t have any announced carrier partnerships, but Thompson said that it is in trials and said the Wi-Fi hot zones it is building will be capable of working with multiple carriers simultaneously.

“We know there is a lot of value in these networks,” he said.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik