In our latest report on wireless ISPs, we talk to Canadian firm FatPort: As a scrappy company with just 10 employees running 138 hotspots, FatPort has to stay a few steps ahead of the competition, which includes keeping a keen eye on the mobile operators. The small company isn't afraid to spur innovation, but president and CEO Sean O'Mahony just hopes his company can benefit when that happens. "We can change the course of events and force others to take action," he said. "The dangerous thing is when you open a niche and don't get to exploit the benefits."
FatPort is taking an industry lead on a number of fronts. It recently began offering its voice over Wi-Fi service (with pay-as-you-go operator Mobitus) in its hotspots as one way to help venues make use of their broadband backhaul pipes. O'Mahony found that in most cases Wi-Fi only uses up five percent of a DSL line in a hotspot. "We have to fill the pipe up and add more services," he said. At the same time, FatPort found that 85 percent of hotspot usage is by workers at the venue or vendors that may visit the venue to sell products. The voice over Wi-Fi service is aimed mainly at those users, more so than hotspot customers, because the FatPort network isn't extensive enough for the voice service to appeal broadly to customers, O'Mahony said.
FatPort has other innovative projects in the works. For the past year and a half, O'Mahony has unsuccessfully tried to strike a wholesale GPRS agreement with a mobile operator in order to offer FatPort customers a combined GPRS/Wi-Fi service. "I couldn’t get a deal. They wouldn't work with us," he said. But, O'Mahony says he's found a back door way to secure minutes on a GPRS network, though he wouldn't reveal details. While it's hard to predict when he might launch the offering, he's hoping to by this summer.
The hunt for a cellular data deal isn't the only instance where FatPort has been in negotiations with the cell operators. Recently, the four Canadian operators partnered to build hotspots around the country under a common brand. The deal isn't bad news for FatPort. O'Mahony is currently negotiating with the operators to offer them wholesale access to FatPort hotspots. In that case, the operators could keep their relationships with their customers but list the FatPort hotspots as part of their network. FatPort hotspots would display the brand of the partnership.
O'Mahony has some reservations about working with the big operators. "My main concern is that they don't go try to poach my locations," he said. "But at the moment I think it's positive until proven otherwise."
If only all deals with hotspot operators could be so easy. "It's easier for me to get a roaming deal in Europe than my own country," O'Mahony said. He doesn't see a downside to roaming deals but apparently some of his competitors do. One operator decided against a roaming deal with FatPort because it said the deal would benefit FatPort more than itself. "That's a completely dumb viewpoint. We benefit each other. Why compete against each other? The market is too small. We should build regional networks and leverage it one against the other," he said. FatPort's largest reciprocal, no-fee roaming arrangement is with Surf and Sip, which has US and European locations.
FatPort has met twice with Spotnik to discuss a roaming deal to no avail. FatPort had hoped to make a roaming deal to offer its customers hotspot access to Toronto but when no operator would partner, the company decided to build its own hotspots there. "We couldn't get a deal in Toronto so we opened up 12 hotspots," he said. "It's not something we planned originally."
FatPort is maintaining a steady growth rate, mainly by riding on the coattails of advertising from big companies like Intel and T-Mobile. "We have zero marketing money," O'Mahony admits. "What we have to do is leverage off the deep pockets." FatPort is racking up 26 new paying customers per day and is adding around seven new hotspots per month. It logs around 185 paid sessions per day, which works out to around 1.4 paid session per location per day.