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The Boston Globe

Business

Using radio signals, Internet startup takes on the cable giants

Entrepreneur Brough Turner (on ladder ) placed equipment for his company, netBlazr Inc., on a Cambridge rooftop in April.  Helping Turner was his intern Douglas Arevalo.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Entrepreneur Brough Turner (on ladder ) placed equipment for his company, netBlazr Inc., on a Cambridge rooftop in April. Helping Turner was his intern Douglas Arevalo.

Brough Turner’s audacious scheme to bring
a high-speed broadband network to Boston to rival those of the Internet giants rests on a technology from the 19th century: radio airwaves.

Using unlicensed radio frequencies — the same spectrum used for Wi-Fi hot spots and garage door openers — Turner is beaming access to the Web from a thicket of radio antennas he has installed on the 61st floor of the John Hancock Tower to a network of receivers on rooftops around Boston.

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Some 200 business and residential customers of Turner’s company, netBlazr Inc. — from tech startups in West Cambridge to residents in the South End — enjoy Internet connections starting at 15 megabits per second for as little as $40 a month.

For businesses that demand more bandwidth, netBlazr offers speeds of up to 500 megabits per second, or enough to support a big company with hundreds of employees.

“I was a little skeptical,” said Walter Ferme, the owner of CAJ House, which rents out corporate housing in Boston.

At first, he used netBlazr as backup Internet service for his properties, but made it his primary provider when it proved reliable.

“Go local — that’s what I always tell people,” Ferme said.

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Turner and his cofounder, netBlazr chief executive Jim Hanley, are veterans of the computer networking and communications industry, with several successes under their belts. They started the company in 2010 on the assumption that consumers in the Boston area were hungry for low-cost, high-speed Internet service, without long-term contracts or the confusing bundles offered by the big providers.

For all of Boston’s acclaim as a hotbed of technology, local entrepreneurs complain they do not have that many low-cost options for fast Web access.

Verizon Communications, for example, does not offer its high-speed FiOS service in the city. Comcast Corp. does have some lower-cost offerings, but if cable is not already in the building, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to wire up an office. The one erstwhile challenger, RCN Corp., is only in select city neighborhoods.

Other companies that offer super-fast connections, such as Cogent Communications and Lightower Fiber Networks, often start at about $1,000 a month.

Delivering Web access via radio waves is not all that new. A handful of companies around the country offer a service similar to netBlazr’s. But only recently have high-powered antennas capable of transmitting the Web over several city blocks become affordable, a few hundred dollars each for the off-the-shelf antennas that netBlazr uses.

“We don’t have to dig up the streets or hang things on poles,” Turner said. “Basically what we are building around Boston is a network of antennas.”

The antennas netBlazr uses can beam Internet connections as far as 15 miles without reductions in speed, Turner said, so long as they do not encounter interference. But in a busy city, those waves can be interrupted by Wi-Fi signals, baby monitors, even cordless phones. To preserve fidelity, netBlazr closely spaces its antennas, usually at less than one mile apart, with many of them 500 yards of each other.

What has also helped netBlazr establish a foothold is a set of conditions unique to cities such as Boston where there are still older buildings that have not been rewired for the modern Internet. Those buildings, in Chinatown, the Leather District, and other neighborhoods, have drawn tech startups for their cheap rents and period charm. Yet if there is no cable Internet already in the building, businesses may face hefty construction costs to bring the service in from nearby streets.

“The problem they are trying to tackle is that decent Internet can be expensive and sometimes not available,” said David Abrams, a former tech executive who teaches courses on the Internet and law at Suffolk University Law School.

From his turn-of-the-century office building near Downtown Crossing, Ben Einstein paid $1,000 a month for a feed from Verizon running at 10 megabits per second, barely fast enough for two people in his office to video conference at the same time.

“My cellphone is faster than that,” Einstein said. “I literally had to walk to the coffee shop to do Skype calls.”

He found netBlazr by searching the Web. Einstein now pays $70 a month for a 40-megabit connection, plenty fast enough for his firm, Bolt, which provides tech startups with early-stage funding and work space.

The big providers do not seem fazed by netBlazr. Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro had not even heard of the company until contacted by the Globe.

“This is yet another demonstration of the highly competitive and dynamic nature of the broadband marketplace,” he said.

Comcast declined to comment.

So far, netBlazr’s service is confined to neighborhoods around downtown Boston and parts of Cambridge and Allston that are dense enough for its network to function. But it is adding about 30 customers a month and has antennas on some 35 buildings, where they also act as relay points to extend the network. In addition to the Hancock Tower, netBlazr taps directly into fiber connections in Brighton and North Cambridge.

NetBlazr has some of the same challenges as its bigger rivals. For example, installation fees run about $200 for an apartment building and start at $300 for businesses, depending on the configuration and conditions. Comcast, by contrast, sometimes will bring its cable connections into a building for free if there are enough businesses or tenants willing to sign up.

Comcast, Verizon, and other traditional providers do not have to worry about trees, either. A major limitation facing netBlazr’s expansion to outlying neighborhoods is that trees interfere with radio waves, which means the company has to be selective about where it expands.

“It gets a lot harder when you get out to West Roxbury or Newton,” Turner acknowledged.

One of its first customers was Carbonite, the provider of computer backup services in the Back Bay. It first used netBlazr in 2012 as a backup to its main service from Verizon.

After netBlazr “ran months and months and months without a hiccup,” Carbonite’s chief executive, David Friend, elected to drop Verizon and use the radio waves for the company’s main Internet service.

Friend is a fan in every possible way. He started using it at his Commonwealth Avenue home, and persuaded his neighbors to sign up, too.

“The people in my building got it because I got it, and they figure if it doesn’t work, they can yell at me,” Friend said.

Friend has also become an investor in netBlazr and holds a seat on its board.

NetBlazr may not always be the cheapest option for fast Internet, though. Bigger customers may be able to negotiate lower prices directly from the fiber-optic providers that netBlazr uses to connect to the backbone of the Internet.

Because of the way the big providers package their services, it is not easy to compare Verizon or Comcast to netBlazr; most plans do not have the same speeds for downloading and uploading information, as netBlazr does.

For example, on the closest Comcast plan upload speeds are 5 megabits per second, compared with 15 megabits for netBlazr’s entry-level plan. The base price for that Comcast plan is $40 a month in the first year and $55 after the first year.

What’s more, for a base price of about $80 a month, Comcast cable subscribers also get more than 200 TV channels.

With netBlazr, it is just the Web. But that seems to be just fine with its customers, said Jim Hanley, chief executive. “All they want is a superfast, affordable Internet connection.”

Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.

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