I confess I had the wrong impression of Boingo Wireless, who I thought were exclusively involved only in Wi-Fi aggregation and service provision. They also have a substantial and growing business installing and managing wireless services for many large venues and enterprises using a mix of DAS, Wi-Fi and small cell technology. I spoke with Dr. Derek Peterson, their CTO, who told me how they select the most appropriate access technologies, where they add value to the venue owner and why some aspects of their solution have needed to be developed in-house.
Boingo (NASDAQ:WIFI) announced revenue of $119 million in 2014, up 11%. Approximately 32% of revenue in Q4 2014 was represented by DAS and Small Cells - related to increased revenues from new build-out projects and DAS access fees. Their CEO reported a doubling of their DAS sales pipeline together with major wins including the New York World Trade Centre. Geographically, most of their business is in the US but they have some installations elsewhere including Brazil, Dubai, China, UK (including Gatwick airport) and all Italian airports.
Dr. Derek Peterson, their CTO, explained to me why venue owners see them as an attractive option. Firstly, they can provide the full range of technologies across both cellular and Wi-Fi. Secondly, they add a range of Value Added Services on top. This can include reporting aggregate data about how and where visitors are moving around a venue, including dwell times to highlight those areas either suffering from congestion or where poster advertising might be most valuable.
Some of their clients prefer this information in the form of a monthly report. Others are more hands-on and want access to minute-by-minute trends via their real-time portal. He points out that many of the simpler DAS only solution providers, especially those not also managing the Wi-Fi, don't provide such holistic insights. I'd guess that capability is also out of the scope of many of the individual mobile operators themselves too.
Which operators are installing most DAS systems?
"Boingo focuses on big venues with large audiences. These venues typically have very difficult coverage and capacity challenges. Boingo partners with one or more carriers to design a solution that is capable of scaling to support service from all carriers. Each carrier then installs their own basestations in the central machine rooms and connect to the DAS.
We've witnessed a change in emphasis between national carriers, with the larger ones pulling back on initial investments, and letting T-Mobile and Sprint become first movers into some venues. Eventually every DAS network will become all-operator. We currently average 2.8 operators per DAS node. Some of our sites have as many as five and it's not just the national four operators – for example, US Cellular, C-Spire, etc."
Can you describe a typical example where multiple technologies are used?
"University of Arizona already had DAS installed in their stadium from the previous year. We used O-DAS (Outside DAS) to distribute the RF signals outdoors throughout the campus, directing the stadium antenna to point away from the stands and use network capacity when there wasn't a match on.
We then went through the university seating areas and put in enterprise grade Wi-Fi – a lot of video traffic is consumed while people are not moving around. Then we installed LTE small cells in the classrooms. We take a good look at the traffic profile, services used and mobility to determine the most appropriate solution.
Universities are a good place to look for future trends – they are all pushing hard to become 'mini-cities' and are early adopters of smart city technology. We are starting to see a greater push for small cells and do find them attractively priced. Their low unit cost means it can be cheaper to install even three times number of small cells than DAS in some scenarios, but I wouldn't recommend them for stadiums or other intensive use cases.
In summary, we believe there is a place for all of these technologies and none will win outright in all situations."
How has public Wi-Fi developed?
"The WBA and WFA organisations have definitely improved the Wi-Fi experience by making it easier to connect and handoff. Passpoint has matured a lot over the last eight months to provide a seamless service.
Boingo has extensively deployed Passpoint and implemented bi-directional roaming with Time Warner Cable. At our last earnings call, we announced five million handsets already Passpoint enabled, with some 40 million to be added soon. We expect Wi-Fi offloading to develop quickly.
Boingo has deployed its own policy control using an NFV/SDN solution for Wi-Fi. I tried to get someone to build it for me, but we've ended up doing the solution development in-house. We wanted to virtualise all the important functions (e.g. DHCP, NAT, Openflow controller for traffic steering) alongside Deep Packet Inspection. We've created what I call a Virtual Infrastructure Appliance (VIA), which is installed onsite. This is all part of a smart, secure multi-platform tiered network. With the PCRE function onsite at the edge and a PCRF function in the cloud, we can look at what's happening in the network in real time and react to it automatically.
We also have monthly calls with the smartphone device manufacturers to discuss and improve how the end-to-end service works."
Finally, what's your view of LAA and sharing unlicensed spectrum between Wi-Fi and LTE?
"LAA has to be designed to work in such a way that it doesn't interfere with existing Wi-Fi devices and their operation. If that can really be made to work adequately, then I'm all for it because it would improve the end customer experience. However I haven't seen that yet, including visiting both Qualcomm and Ericsson. I don't think there has been enough testing yet. The WBA has established a working group which will trial and validate it."