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SkyTel rolling out UnpluggedCity, SkyGuard products

Clinton — Since its founding, SkyTel has made a name for itself as a wireless communication company offering innovative, unique products.

Seventeen years later, the company, best known as a pioneer in wireless communication in the areas of nationwide numeric and text paging as well as two-way messaging and now is a business unit of MCI, is still at it, recently rolling out two new products in late 2005 — UnpluggedCity, a wireless broadband Internet service, and SkyGuard, which allows parents to remotely monitor their teenage drivers.

UnpluggedCity

Last December, SkyTel launched UnpluggedCity in Lexington, Ky., offering subscribers in the downtown area wireless broadband Internet connectivity. According to SkyTel president Bruce Deer, the installation of the hardware, which took approximately 60 days, went smoothly. Now, the company is looking to market the service and grow its subscriber base.

“Two of the advantages of UnpluggedCity is that it offers quick deployment and requires no investment by the city,” Deer said. “We are quite pleased with the progress so far, and are now looking to expand into areas of Lexington not initially targeted.”

UnpluggedCity offers wireless Internet access through a series of wireless WiFi nodes, creating what Deer described as a “Wi-Fi mesh” provided via small, fairly inconspicuous pole-mounted hardware. The service offers street-level connectivity (the signal is strongest at street level, but can reach upper floors of buildings) to the downtown area, which also includes some residences.

The system, which SkyTel began developing in mid-year 2005, is designed to meet the higher bandwidth needs of businesses as alternative or backup to T1 service. Connectivity speed can vary widely depending on the user’s distance from a W-Fi node and signal obstructions. Best effort speeds for residential and small business service is three millions of bits per second (mbps). The speed of Unplugged Enterprise, which includes UnpluggedCity Residential Wireless Broadband, UnpluggedCity Small Business Wireless Broadband and Unplugged Traveler, is up to seven mbps.

SkyTel is anticipating UnpluggedCity’s momentum to increase in Lexington as the result of marketing efforts and word of mouth. And there are areas of Lexington not initially targeted that offer the potential for expansion. The University of Kentucky’s campus is adjacent to downtown, and the city has new condominium developments, both of which offer prospective lucrative markets, Deer said. However, he stressed that SkyTel does not have agreements with either the university officials or condominium developers at this time.

But SkyTel does have an agreement in hand with Colorado Springs, Colo. The company plans to launch UnpluggedCity there this month. Due to winter weather conditions, the installation phase will probably take longer, but Deer anticipates that putting the system in place will go as smoothly as it did in Lexington. He added that SkyTel was in negotiations with other communities, which he was not at liberty to discuss at press time.

SkyGuard

The saying “out of sight, out of mind” does not apply to parents and their teenage drivers. Research by SkyTel found that monitoring where and how a teen is driving is a pent-up need for parents, and the company is now meeting that need through SkyGuard.

SkyGuard gives parents the capability to “virtually” ride shotgun with their children. The device, approximately the size of a bar of soap, uses GPS technology and SkyTel’s two-way messaging service to send back such information as driving speed and location of the vehicle, with the database updated every 10 minutes and offering a remote alert feature that notifies parents via e-mail or mobile phone if there is an usual occurrence such as when the vehicle is being driven when it should be parked. It can even lock and unlock doors and disable the starter.

While new, SkyTel did not have to build SkyGuard from scratch. The system is built off a pre-existing SkyTel system called Fleet Hawk, developed for commercial fleet monitoring. Using it as a platform, SkyTel developed SkyGuard beginning approximately one year ago. (Deer personally beta tested the concept, installing a prototype system in his family vehicle, much to his children’s chagrin.) The company launched the service last September.

“I think SkyGuard could be really big,” Deer said. “It’s been received fairly well so far.”

Deer pointed out that SkyGuard was still new, and the company’s marketing efforts were just beginning. He said SkyTel was looking to get SkyGuard on retailers’ shelves and other channels in addition to offering it for purchase online.

The product also has the potential to reach users other than parents. Deer said the system would be ideal for law enforcement. Police could use the system for monitoring traffic, background checks on individuals and other applications.

And SkyTel is still tweaking SkyGuard. An updated version is expected in early 2006, and will include such add-ons as seat belt detection.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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