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MobileAccess Networks Strengthens Signals for Indoor Use

By Andrea Caumont
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page E05

Every day, cubicle-dwellers get up from their desks and walk to their nearest windows in search of a strong enough signal to make or answer a cell-phone call. Cathy Zatloukal thinks her in-building wireless infrastructure company, MobileAccess Networks, can save them the trip.

"It's becoming a natural occurrence for us, even in the office, to reach for a mobile phone," said Zatloukal, the Vienna company's president and chief executive. But inside an office building, many cell phone users can't find a signal.

From left, Michael Southworth, vice president, finance; Magnus Friberg, chief operating officer; Bill Cune, vice president, sales; Cathy Zatloukal, president and chief executive; Jeff Kunst, vice president, marketing; and David Wiley, vice president, services, display their networking products. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

Name: MobileAccess Networks

Location: Vienna

Big idea: Provides in-building wireless infrastructure.

Founded: 1998. The company adopted its current name in June 2003 to reflect its evolving focus on providing universal wireless service infrastructure.

Web site: www.mobileaccess.com

Who's in charge: Cathy Zatloukal, president and chief executive; Yair Oren, chief technology officer; and Steven Dussek, chairman.

Funding: The company raised $10 million from venture capital firms HarbourVest Partners of Boston and Israel-based Pitango Venture Capital. A follow-on round is expected in January.

Employees: The company has grown from 50 to 85 employees since June 2003 and expects to add to its marketing and sales departments next year.

Partners: MobileAccess is certified by the largest wireless carriers in the United States: Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless, Nextel Communications Inc., T-Mobile USA Inc., Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless Services Inc.

Big-name clients: American Red Cross, Rice Memorial Hospital, American University, the House of Representatives, Fort Lauderdale Airport and American Family Insurance Group

Origin of company name: "It was an internal competition," Zatloukal said. "We opened it up to the employees. We said this is what we do, the solution we provide, here are the clients we serve, so propose names that you think represent who we are. It was actually a fun process, a morale-building experience."

Zatloukal said signal strength depends on what a building is made of, the distance to the nearest cellular tower, how much data the call is pushing over the air and signal interference from networks operating on the same frequency bands.

WiFi is another in-building problem. The wireless Internet technology is limited by the relatively weak signal strength of access points, which are designed to cover the area of a home for consumer use, she said. As more companies invest in WiFi networks and begin to migrate mission-critical applications onto these networks, Zatloukal said, they need to be sure they'll be able to access the network.

The MobileAccess broadband network supports both wireless voice and data applications. Instead of installing WiFi access points in drop ceilings, Zatloukal said, MobileAccess clusters them in telecommunications closets and amplifies the signal, sending it out to passive antennas that radiate the signal throughout a building. "The same effective power, and therefore bandwidth, that existed when the access point was in the ceiling now exists where the antennas are," she said.

The MobileAccess service is modular, so companies can add or subtract features as their needs dictate. "We've found that one of the major factors in evaluating this type of equipment, and where we think we're uniquely positioned, is [companies] want to make sure that not only the cellular, but also the WiFi and WiMax applications that may become available, can be added to the system," Zatloukal said. "When you invest in information infrastructure, you want to make sure it's scalable, future-proof . . . A lot of other companies have continued to focus on the extension of cellular services in buildings. In terms of how they've [designed] their products, they've made it difficult to scale and add new services . . . If some new application comes up, our system is designed, because it is that broadband transport, to support it."

Zatloukal said MobileAccess has thousands of customers worldwide, many in financial services, government and health care. She said the universal wireless infrastructure business is evolving rapidly. "Five years ago, you didn't have your personal cellular phone number on your business cards," she said. "We believe you're going to have wireless devices that will enable you to do video, online conferencing, as well as the 'push' e-mail and voice applications you have today. These applications are things users will want to use within buildings. The need for these types of systems is going to explode."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company