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How Do You Know What You Dont Know?

When we made the decision to begin a new company that develops Wi-Fi hotspots in hospitality venues, I asked my business partner what issues were likely to bite us in the rear end. Over the course of the next few days, we brainstormed some of the obvious possibilities, including changes in technology, changing revenue models, competition from telephone and utility companies, the impact of free network proponents, and overall public resistance to adopting the new technology.

Having previous experience with startup phone companies since the early 1990s, and having founded a public fax kiosk business of my own, I was well aware of the potential pitfalls and potholes that I would experience when deploying new services with startup ventures. However, I now realize there exists a profound difference between those ventures based on proven technologies, as ever-changing as they might be, and those founded on relatively new technologies such as Wi-Fi. One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Jim Crowe, president and CEO of Level 3 Communications Inc. and former chairman and CEO of MFS (Metropolitan Fiber Systems). Upon starting MFS, he stated: Cover the downside, the upside takes care of itself. This statement has become my mantra and the way by which I approach most of my business dealings.

What are Managed Service Providers?

Managed service providers (MSPs), or Hotspot in a Box providers, enable those looking to become wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) to quickly and cost-effectively build out a public Wi-Fi network. As part of their turnkey service offerings, most will provide all back-office operations on some form of revenue share (75/25 split) or flat-fee structure based on the number of locations ($50 per venue) or on a per-transaction ($1.00 per user) basis. This arrangement allows you to focus on strategic sales and marketing efforts, thereby avoiding the large capital outlay usually associated with developing infrastructure and staffing a service provider type of business. In telecom terms, it is akin to becoming a switchless reseller. Devoid of the back-office responsibilities, the barrier to entry in developing Wi-Fi hotspots is largely lifted, thus allowing most anyone to become a virtual Internet service provider.

Perhaps this sounds too good to be true; thats what I thought. The ability to simply hang out your shingle in an industry largely absent regulation, with an emerging technology, a projected demand whose bell curve has no apex in sight, in a market with little or no competition, and whose vertical markets are too numerous think about is unimaginable. And best of all, the industry giants of the networking and telecommunications industries are backing this new technology with hundreds of millions of dollars. I ask myself, Where is the downside, Mr. Crowe? Nineteen months, three MSPs, countless hours of phone calls and thousands of e-mails later, I can now answer that question. The downside is what you dont know!

I have often heard it said that there is no substitute for experience. Hopefully, the experiences we have had will be put to use in better preparing you in evaluating an MSP. The downside for us was the time spent working through all the glitches and nuances of the vendors systems and services with whom we had partnered. In an effort to determine our primary provider, we negotiated our contracts with each and put their equipment into service at three separate test locations. We wanted to see who offered the best overall service and obtain real-world feedback from the end users who actually used the systems. We also evaluated the equipment of each provider within the same facility to determine in head-to-head testing which companys equipment performed the best from a coverage standpoint. The evaluations resulted in no clear leader. While we liked certain aspects of each of the three companies, there wasnt one who had exactly what we needed. To be fair, these were all good companies with very talented and professional employees who would try to help resolve the various problems we encountered. Each of the companies offered reliable and robust support services and operated very sophisticated network operations centers (NOCs). However, their service offerings still fell short of meeting our expectations. Some of the issues we initially struggled with, and which we would not have identified without preliminary testing, included account support, 24-hour tech support, the equipment itself and revenue reporting.

Account Support:

Since some of these MSPs promote their services through the Business Opportunity Circuit and are looking for people who are willing to write large checks, the account managers tend to be more focused on selling rather than supporting. There is a direct correlation between how many units you are purchasing and how much time they can spend servicing your account. You should look for a company that has secondary support personnel dedicated to helping you manage your business. Ask how many accounts each manager is assigned to and how frequently they interact with them. Try to determine what tasks they are responsible for and who their back up is when they call in sick.

We had an account support specialist who handled 40 accounts like ours and was responsible for everything from resolving programming issues with the initial setup of equipment to conducting orientations and training sessions. She was even responsible for updating technical procedure manuals and developing marketing materials. Every aspect of supporting each WISP account ran through her. Needless to say, many issues went unresolved and she eventually got burnt out. She didnt stick around long and neither did her replacement. Maintaining continuity with your support specialist insures that you are not wasting time needlessly bringing the replacements up to speed.

Additionally, due to the explosive growth in Wi-Fi, make sure that the MSP has sufficient capital, personnel and management capable of supporting your account. You need to ask for references of other WISPs they support and contact them to determine their level of satisfaction with your prospective provider.

24-Hour Tech Support:

End users of the service sometimes experience problems when trying to wirelessly connect to the Internet via a public hotspot. Often the problem is simply that an IP address from the previous location is stuck in their computer. Performing a release and renewal of the IP configuration within DOS solves the problem. As most people are unaware of the fix, and the front desk clerk at the hotel is not likely to be able to assist the guest, your customer will need remote assistance from a technically competent customer care specialist. What we found was that the skill levels of those staffing the phone lines at the NOC vary considerably.

Some MSPs outsource this service to call centers overseas. This often adds to the frustration of the end user when they have trouble communicating with the technician. Since we pursue hospitality venues that operate 24/7, we need our tech support line to operate on the same schedule. Unfortunately, not all MSPs provide this type of support, and some even consider it a premium service offering for which they will charge extra. Make sure you identify the standard versus premium support offerings up front when you negotiate your contract. It also is a good idea to call the support number and test the service prior to finalizing the contract. See how long it takes to get to a real person who can assist you, and inquire into the escalation procedures if the technician is unable to resolve the problem and how that gets reported.

One of our vendors sent an e-mail notification each time an incident occurred, but never included the location where the call originated. When we requested that they include that information in the trouble ticket, they refused to accommodate us, stating that they would need to rewrite the software program they were using and that other WISPs didnt require that information; they were unwilling to do it just for us.

Another issue to check into is how many calls the support center can handle at any given time. The aforementioned MSP only had five lines and when the sixth call came into the call center, the call rolled over to the receptionist who had no clue as to which WISPs customer was calling. This adds to the confusion and frustration of the end user, and ultimately leads to the venue owner having to deal with a disgruntled guest. We suggested several solutions to address this problem, including adding an auto attendant feature to their phone system or adding busy line transfer features to their fifth line so that the call could be routed to an outside answering service. Again, we were refused.

I cant stress enough the importance of having a top-notch tech support center. We have since found one of the best inbound tech support call center operators and have actually won contracts as a result of demonstrating their service, which they now private label for us.

Equipment:

The MSP and your reputation is only as good as the controller gateway that sits at the head of the network. This controller is the box that interconnects with the broadband Internet pipe, and as always, some of these boxes are better than others. Most function as an access point (transmitter/receiver) and are the core products behind the hotspot in a box service offerings. Others function to simply redirect you to servers located at the NOC, while some perform all the NOC server functions within them. However, the primary purpose of the device is to authenticate users on the network. This is achieved either through using a credit card, or by authentication via user name and password, a function that might cause problems.

Some MSPs run RADIUS servers that allow the end user to self-administer their desired user name and password. This process is very similar to when you establish an online account with your bank card and select your own user name and password. It works well when you are tying it to a pay-per-use plan or when setting up an account for daily or monthly billing; however, when you try to provide free access to the end user, not all providers can easily facilitate that function.

The hospitality industry has moved away from charging the guest a fee for Wi-Fi access and has largely adopted the concept of offering Wi-Fi as an amenity free for guest use. This often becomes problematic for the MSP, since their systems are based on collecting a percentage of the transaction fees. This requires them to manually generate password lists, and it becomes a slightly cumbersome process to administer the list of user names and passwords. It further burdens the venue staff with another task while opening the door to another potential failure point. Often these passwords are case sensitive with letters and symbols mixed together and, like credit card numbers, are 16 digits long. We have struggled through this process and can tell you that most authentication problems stem from this process. Users will confuse a zero for the letter O and will inevitably enter the digit in the wrong case. We had requested the MSP to simply not use these two digits when generating user names and passwords, and not make them case sensitive, but once again were refused.

Another function of the gateway access controller is to allow for the MSP to monitor the network. Although most are designed to be interconnected with other network devices, including additional access points, some are more robust than others. You want to make sure that you have the ability to see through this box to the other devices on the network. This is an important feature when you are deploying a wireless network in a venue that requires more than one device to provide total coverage. Equally important is the ability to troubleshoot a localized interruption in service, i.e. an outage on the third floor. You want to be able to communicate with the access point servicing that location. All the MSPs state that they monitor the network, but most only communicate with the gateway access controller, and as a result, you cant verify that the devices behind it are functioning properly. Being able to perform this function will help to differentiate your service offering from your competitors.

Revenue Reporting:

By and large, the MSPs have this down. They collect the funds from the system users, deduct their contracted share, and then forward you your share of the revenue generated along with a detailed reporting of the transactions for each user of the system. However, we have encountered problems where the credit card receipts didnt match the usage reports, so it isnt without its flaws. The area of concern isnt so much that the problem occurred, but rather the time spent trying to resolve it.

Many times the MSPs accounts payable person is saddled with the responsibility of reconciling the errors in the transaction, but is powerless to resolve the system issue that created the accounting error. Thus, it would be necessary to get a programmer involved. The countless hours spent chasing down the problem often do not justify the pursuit. You will spend more than you will recover. Make sure to ask for demos of the systems and reports used in this process. This system is how you will collect your money and you are ultimately dependent upon it to collect for your services.

Our nine-month quest for what we didnt know enabled us to see the various shortcomings of our turnkey hotspot providers, and ultimately led us to building a better mousetrap. Each experience doesnt need to be a positive one for it to be valuable. Overcoming the challenges we faced allowed us to enhance our service offerings, thus enabling us to further differentiate our service from those of our competitors.

Tom Sullivan is chief manager of Wi-Fi Guys LLC, which specializes in design, deployment and management of high-speed wireless networks in hospitality venues. For additional information log onto: www.wi-figuys.com or via email at: tsullivan@wi-figuys.com


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