Leap Frog Leap Frogs The Competition

June 13, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Leap Frog is bridging the "last mile" — or more specifically the last foot — bringing high-speed wireless Internet access all the way down to the user's personal office space.

And it claims to be doing it in a fraction of the time it typically takes other Internet service providers.

The new company, barely six months old, is the brainchild of long-time friends Dan Horne and Brad Ruiter, both of Holland.

The catalyst for Leap Frog was a new wireless receiver that Cisco Systems started delivering to the market in March. The 13-inch by 13-inch receiver, which looks like a ceiling tile, is mounted atop a building to provide tenants dedicated, high-speed data and voice circuits with what Leap Frog says is fiber quality connection. 

What Horne and Ruiter saw in the Cisco product was a great opportunity to increase the speed of deployment to the Internet for businesses. Leap Frog provides wireless connections within five days, as opposed to the typical three to four months it takes other resellers of Internet services.

The partners decided to bring the new technology to Grand Rapids because it's Michigan's second largest market. Sprint and MCI are only interested in deploying wireless in Detroit, not in Grand Rapids, they pointed out. 

"It sure is exhausting to be in West Michigan and be the last to see technology," Ruiter remarked. "Year after year after year it just slowly gets here." He said Leap Frog's goal is to put western Michigan back on the map where it's supposed to be.

The system integrates a customer's current network and allows for scalable bandwidth so Internet access speed can be increased instantly and temporarily as needed.

Phone company customers who want to change speeds on their circuit typically have to wait 30 days, Ruiter noted. Leap Frog customers need only call the company to get an immediate increase in access speed, even if they need it merely for an afternoon.

It also represents freedom from the phone company.

Locally, Leap Frog is the first commercial-class, business-grade alternative to dealing with the phone company, Horne said, adding that it completely takes the hassle out of data services.

A lot of people are trying to do wireless but it's not commercial grade, Horne observed. They're doing it on shared frequencies.

"What's really key about us, the frequency the FCC has allocated for fixed wireless is 5.7 gigahertz. So we have equipment that operates at those frequencies through the home office, which we bring and link through the whole building that won't be interfered with," Horne said.

"There are people who try to provide the same service at another frequency, 2.4 gigahertz, but that's a frequency that's shared with cordless phones, garage door openers, internal wires. The links are not business grade and they can go down at any time," Horne said. 

Horne brings to the venture years of business expertise and well-honed organizational skills, Ruiter says. Horne had been purchasing high-speed Internet access services for 13 years as CFO and partner in Manpower in western Michigan.

Ruiter brings the technology experience and knowledge and a vision of how to intelligently apply technology, his partner says. Ruiter's experience has been in the technical, R&D side of the business, most recently working for Fuel Interactive of Grand Rapids.

Both bring to Leap Frog an entrepreneurial spirit as well. 

When Ruiter and Horne deployed the system a few months ago, it was only available in three other cities: Dallas, Boston and San Jose.

The immediate need for wireless application in Grand Rapids is in the business market, and this technology has huge implications for business, Ruiter said.

He says the fixed wireless industry is in a real growth period, and it's projected there will be 34 million users within the next 18 months.

"Typically, a business owner has to call a Sprint or an MCI or another reseller of Internet services and order a circuit to be installed in the building. They, in turn, coordinate efforts with their corporate offices, Ameritech, and a couple other offices, a process that usually takes three to four months — on the low side — before an install is completed," Ruiter explained.

Ameritech is the bottleneck in every case, Horne remarked. "No matter who you buy it from — MCI, Sprint or anybody — it's still the Ameritech guy that shows up to hook up your copper or fiber. Until us.

"We just leap right over them. While they're digging trenches in the dirt, we just put in a link to a building. We don't have to trench fiber or wait for Ameritech to get around to us."

Installation is faster and since it doesn't involve underground infrastructure, there's no worry about a backhoe severing connection to the building. Cost wise, Leap Frog is competitive — comparable to a full T1 with Internet access, Horne said.

Just as customers have to buy certain equipment to hook into a T1, they have to buy equipment for wireless.

"It's hard to say whether we're cheaper or more expensive because our model is different. We're not distance-sensitive in our pricing like the phone company. If our tower can hit a site and make a link, it's not more expensive if the site is a mile away versus three miles away."

Leap Frog's first tower is south of town on Clyde Park Avenue. Its service area reaches as far south as 44th Street and up to the north end of downtown Grand Rapids. The company will began expanding its service area in a month or so, Horne said.

From that super cell, Leap Frog can build out its network with additional cells, called micro cells. "So we build our entire network out where we see customers. It's similar to a cell phone network yet the central circuit you begin with, you can build off that network into whatever area you want to have coverage in based on market demand," Horne explained.

"Millions and millions of miles of fiber are running all over the world and we've eliminated hundreds of thousands of feet of fiber within the Grand Rapids market by employing one super cell," Ruiter pointed out.

Leap Frog provides a circuit to each of a building's tenants, so there's no sharing of service within a building and no compromising in speed or quality of service.

The partners says that weather doesn't affect the system, and Horne says the partners have built into the system all the redundancy possible in terms of alternative paths out to the Internet and back, Horne said. 

Part of the beauty of the network is its troubleshooting capability.

"We can actually diagnose across the whole network, right down to the customer's router, right down to the very little port that a wire plugs into," Ruiter explained.

"We can pinpoint that bad port and have a replacement in less than four hours. Our ability to troubleshoot and maintain things happens very quickly. Right now customer service is everything and we're capitalizing on that."

There's a huge need for high-speed access in the multi-tenant arena, Ruiter said, and from a property management perspective, the Leap Frog system makes space more attractive. A company new to Grand Rapids can't afford to wait three to four months for Internet access. With Leap Frog, a business can have access the day it moves in.

The system can just as well serve the bandwidth needs of a small- to medium-size enterprise or a large business, Ruiter said.

"We can deliver 10 T1s on that one connection. So we can actually supply large amounts of bandwidth to one-building customers as well as large companies that have large bandwidth needs. 

In addition to wireless connectivity, Leap Frog offers wireless local area networks and professional services such as network consulting, Web design and hosting, secure data backup facility and Internet-based telephony.

The voice-over-Internet capability allows for long distance calls at significantly lower rates. For a company with multiple locations, calls are free between its branches, Horne said. 

Leap Frog's system is strictly a commercial application at this time.

Within five years Ruiter would like to see the company expand into secondary markets, providing people that normally can't get broadband that last mile connection.

"I see it being brought to communities that would never, ever get the attention of an Ameritech or a Verizon to provide them with great Internet services." 

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