Chantry Networks, Inc., an Ontario- and Boston-based company that specializes in routed wireless LAN solutions, is attempting to overcome many of the technology limitations of traditional wireless systems by employing techniques borrowed from the Internet. The company's CEO Peter Vicars has more than 35 years experience in the networking and worldwide telecommunications industry. The two founders of Chantry, Brian Collie and Bob Myers, also have an impressive track record in telecommunications, including lengthy stints at Nortel Networks.
We like the company's technology approach and its BeaconWorks family of products. Basically, these products rely on a routed IP architecture that manages activities at each and every wireless access point in the system. The result is that these access points appear as 'sub-nets' within the network, and can therefore theoretically offer higher levels of operability, scalability, availability, manageability, flexibility, and nearly every other '-bility' you can imagine!
So, with all of these things in its favor, why do we still have this nagging little twitch of skepticism in the back of our minds? One reason is that the technology story Chantry is now telling the world is not that different from the PowerPoint-riddled presentations being made by most companies dabbling in wireless LANs these days. In fact, if you take a sampling of all the PowerPoints circulated by some of the better-known companies in this space right now (which is exactly what we did) you will find that most look frightening the same. This leads us to one of two conclusions:
- Just like fruitcakes, there is really only one wireless LAN PowerPoint presentation in existence, which is forever circulating among press, analysts and anyone else who cares to flash it on their computer screen;
- Chantry basically has a good idea, but lacks a strong 'differentiator' that will make it standout from Cisco, Symbol, Bluesocket and others that already have a strong strategic position in wireless LANs, and (more important) the customers to back up these technology claims.
This is exactly what we told CEO Peter Vicars when we talked to him recently about the company and its efforts to spread it wings beyond Canada and further into the United States market. We wanted to get the full story on Chantry because the company had managed to accomplish what many others had failed to do over the past year or so -- that is, attract substantial venture investment in an environment where getting any serious funding is about as tough as threading a needle with an anchor chain. In fact, Chantry has attracted more than $8.5M in Series A funding since last August from multiple sources.
A layered approach
Right now, the company's strongest technology story revolves around BeaconWorks ability to coordinate and manage each and every access point in a specific wireless LAN and treat each user on that network as a subscriber. As it turns out, both Collie and Myers have quite a bit of experience in wireless subscription management from their days at Nortel, and reportedly talked with 120 or more end-user companies about their wireless problems and challenges before coming up with the BeaconWorks technology. Ultimately, they decided on a 'Layer 3' type solution that focuses the technology outside a central wiring cabinet and directly at each access point located throughout a defined and networked space.
We can't argue with this approach, since it does make perfect sense to push network manageability beyond a central point, track subscribers within a wireless system, and coordinate the functions and operations of each wireless access point. It is also a lot cheaper for a large and dispersed application, as Mr. Vicars points out in describing a current beta site that is being installed across the 700-acre campus at Cornell University. As he explains, the Chantry system will cost roughly 40% of a conventional approach that would be based on extended access from a series of wiring cabinets scattered throughout the campus.
What bothers us, though, is that Chantry's story is a lot like those fruitcake PowerPoints -- that is, it is being promoted to death by a lot of other companies in this space. These companies may use different terms to describe or classify their technology (one, for example, refers to the use of 'intelligent access points'), but it all comes down to the same thing: Coordinating the activities of each remote wireless access point to improve access and roaming, increase security, and track wireless users within a network.
What Chantry needs, and what we suggested, is a strong differentiator -- not necessarily in the technology, since at the end of the day most people don't care what kind of car they drive as long as it gets them from Point A to Point B with the least amount of trouble and an air conditioner that works in warm weather. The differentiator in Chantry's case would focus on software applications and targeted deployments. Specifically, the company should look to partner with strong systems integrators and channel players in key industry segments that are naturals for this type of technology (healthcare, manufacturing, utilities), and the company should also increase efforts to target physical locations that are begging for sub-network wireless deployments and technologies.
Off the top of our heads, this would include airports (which are a tough sell due to increased security and skepticism of any wireless network), and convention centers (whose businesses have been hard hit by restrictions in travel and a general malaise among business types for the ROI of conferences). Retail is another potential market, especially large shopping malls where every store can operate a sub-network and customer/users can be tracked as subscribers.
To its credit, Chantry is already eyeing the convention center business, looking at ways to help a large central site and 'mini-city' establish virtualized networks and prioritize individual users. This also has strong security implications, and can be extended quite nicely once you inject voice capabilities into 802.11 networks. In fact, here is where al that past experience from Nortel and Lucent will come into play -- especially if the company decides to develop a strategy that involves the wide area network wireless carriers.
While we do think Chantry has its work cut out for it as it seeks to establish itself in a rising see of wireless companies and alternatives, the company does have a good foundation on which to build that necessary differentiator story. Given a few key channel partnerships and the right deployments and installation angles, Chantry could easily become one of the top players in this industry. And, it does have that wonderful lighthouse logo working in its favor, which for some reason automatically scores a few points from us.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.