Story Series Part 3 : Amobia

From the Story series..

The brief history of Amobia.

Before Amobia was founded

Early in 2002 David Jarvis contacted Joe after finding his personal homepage, looking for Linux geeks to help him build a wireless network in Cape Town. It sounded like a fun challenge, so Frogfoot started doing consulting work for Uninet.

We did network design, routing, QoS, proxy servers, VSAT configs for DVB decoder cards, weird and wonderful asymmetric source routing hacks, some Mikrotik configs, BGP routing etc.

David had just returned from Mozambique where he had built a similar network. This was an interesting time for outdoor wireless networks in South Africa because of the regulatory challenges and questions about the legality of building wireless network infrastructure. It was not even legal to use VoIP back then. A group called Megawan had attempted building wireless networks before and were shut down by the telecoms regulator. In many ways this was the wireless wild west and we knew a few of the cowboys.

We liked the new wireless toys, it was interesting technology and using it was legal in most parts of the civilised world. It was easy to argue that using it was “for the common good”.. and best of all, there was demand, which provided rapid growth opportunities. People were not happy with the incumbent monopoly telco and ADSL services were expensive.

Uninet was routing most of its outgoing and local traffic via Frogfoot’s network at the time and using a big VSAT dish for incoming international traffic. Frogfoot built a Linux QoS server for Uninet. This allowed Uninet to offer always on, rate based internet access at a good price.. an attractive value proposition.

We saw the whole evolution of outdoor wifi.. from PCMCIA cards in Windows PCs (crazy as it may seem) with long antenna cable runs, then simple (dumb) bridge devices, PPPoE, 2.4Ghz 802.11b, then the first wireless CPE routers, followed by 5.8Ghz 802.11a and eventually custom (managed) CPEs. (Customer Premises Equipment).

Frogfoot developed an embedded Linux CPE operating system, which later became the Blio CPE software.

We were happy to be the geeks in the background. David was a true pioneer.

A possible merger, Amobia version 0.1

In late 2004 it was announced that the legal landscape would change. VANS would be allowed to use VoIP as of 1 February 2005 and there were strong indications that VANS would be allowed to build their own networks. Actually I think it was announced that VANS could self provide at that point, but ICASA and the DoC seemed happy to maintain a state of uncertainty.

We started talking about a Frogfoot and Uninet merger. There was talk of using the Amobia brand for the new company. We never managed to make this idea work. Maybe the two company cultures just did not match.

The Amobia Brand

Joe came up with the Amobia name. It has a reference to the amoeba cell based organism. This was the third swimming animal brand… frogs, moon jellies and amoebae.

The Amobia logo was created by a designer we hired at the time.

The mustard yellow, black and burgundy red company colours were inspired by Joe’s favourite wine at the time: Waterford Kevin Arnold Shiraz 2002/2003.

Amobia Communications (Pty) Ltd. was registered in 2003.

Amobia version 1.0

After the Uninet merger idea did not work out.. we parted ways in a spirit of friendly competition. A few months went by and we found ourselves past the Feb 2005 date.

We wanted to build a wireless network to leapfrog the existing wireless providers with a “greenfields” deployment. Do it right, from the start. All 5.8Ghz, no legacy 2.4Ghz equipment.. fully redundant routing, dual backbone routers per site, a 3 layer network with a private IP network for management and a secure VPN layer. No PPPoE. A portal to manage configuration and field-upgradable CPE software. Simple.

“..there has been no case in history where the pioneer became the dominant producer, whether you are talking about a business or a science. The most successful innovators are the creative imitators, the Number Two.”

Frogfoot had the knowledge to design and manage networks, but let’s face it.. we were geeks with skinny touch typing wrists. We needed some muscle on the ground to physically build wireless networks. At one point we tried tracking down an old spearfishing contact, then a paratrooper turned sysadmin.

We started talking to one of Frogfoot’s oldest clients about the idea: Cape PC Services. They were interested. We had a meeting and we started building the new company. It was a simple 50/50 deal.. over a handshake you could say.

Frogfoot would contribute, existing knowledge, management systems, design, marketing, sales and support. CPCS would contribute, network deployment, installation team management, billing and operational things.

We connected our first client in Nov 2005.

Early on we had the vision that wireless is not perfect and it’s hard to get right, but we would engineer systems around the technology to make it work. A wireless network fit for the the African continent.

Fast forward

Amobia received a VANS license. In 2006 a letter from ICASA made 15 wireless providers form WAPA. Amobia and WAPA found a super hero lawyer: Dominic Cull. Amobia connected 100 schools for the SchoolWAN project. We managed to attract a number of big corporate businesses as clients, mostly through our “can do” problem solving attitude. Amobia’s franchise model was a success. Amobia was included in the Individual ECNS license conversion process and we had some fun writing an 80+ page business plan in 5 days. WAPA and Amobia initiated high court legal action asking for a declaratory order on the rights of VANS to self-provide network infrastructure. Amobia now has infrastructure in Gauteng, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Province. We’re about to launch a wifi hotspot service as our “last yard” distribution model.

Our next major challenges are to get an ECNS license, maybe raise some money and grow the franchise business.

It’s not easy running a telecommunications infrastructure business in South Africa, but it’s very rewarding watching it grow and seeing the impact it can have.

Rock ‘n Roll.

I sold my shares in Amobia in early 2010.

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