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That includes getting the necessary permits and licenses through the state and local government. “It’s not onerous,” Barr says, but each company has to figure out how to break into each market. What’s more, he says, the legal framework for Internet service providers is not clearly defined.
One competitor in Boston is NetBlazr, a wireless startup that recently raised $675,000 from angel investors including Carbonite co-founder David Friend. Its service is currently available in much of Boston and parts of Cambridge, MA. (NetBlazr, which went through the MassChallenge startup program, has also raised a little under $1 million in Small Business Innovation Research grants from the National Science Foundation.)
Barr doesn’t seem fazed by the competitive landscape. “The market divides,” he says. “Some care about prices, and they go to [services like] NetBlazr. Others care about quality, and they go to Webpass.” The big question is whether upstarts like Webpass, NetBlazr, and Monkeybrains (another San Francisco company) can get enough of a foothold, or whether they will always be niche players in a huge market.
Lowenstein, who is managing director of Boston-based advisory firm Mobile Ecosystem, says “it will be interesting to see where, and how quickly, Webpass will roll out. There have been some other, not particularly successful attempts at launching competitive broadband services.”
Webpass will have its hands full in the early days, as it looks to build up a base of fanatical customers who will evangelize for its Boston service. The company needs to get in front of decision makers—property managers, building developers, and the like—who will allow Webpass access into buildings to install its network. But Webpass has done it before in other cities.
Its initial Boston team has expertise in sales, networking, and construction, Barr says. He stresses that the mindset is very different from a telecom or cable company. “We’re not arrogant with our customers. That’s why people hate Comcast,” he says. For new hires, he adds, “The biggest thing for us is attitude—people realizing we are selling a service that’s vital, but you can’t be dictatorial with customers.”
In the meantime, Webpass is profitable and seems to be growing a healthy business. The company says it has about 20,000 residential customers nationwide, which make up about half its business; the other half is commercial customers. Contrary to most Bay Area tech companies, it has never taken venture funding. As Barr puts it, “We didn’t raise money. We do make money. We’re an oddball.”
But that means the steady effort must continue for Webpass to succeed and keep growing. “We won’t be in every city overnight,” Barr says. “We’re a normal company that grows normally. You have to sign contracts, install network equipment, run fiber, buy trucks, hire construction, and it all takes money.”
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