Root Wireless gets new funding

Mon, 11/23/2009 - 7:20am
Monica Alleven, Wireless Week

All of those recent ads focused on 3G coverage maps and network speed are only working in favor of Root Wireless, which recently secured a second round of funding as it seeks to “map the wireless world.”

The company recently closed a Series B $3.25 million financing round, with many long-time industry veterans among its investors. Scott Anderson, Jack Roberts and John Stanton are a few of them who also participated in the Series A round.

Fred Warren, co-founder of Brentwood Associates and Sage Venture Partners, co-led the group of venture investors who oversubscribed the Series B round. Anderson, chairman of Root Wireless’ board, previously was in charge of acquisitions and development at McCaw Cellular Communications and AT&T Wireless Services; he subsequently co-founded Cedar Grove Partners. Roberts is the former CEO of Telephia, and Stanton founded and was CEO of Western Wireless, which was acquired by Alltel, and Voicestream Wireless, acquired by T-Mobile.

Root Wireless CEO Paul Griff, who was most recently with Bsquare, says the intent of the company is not to replace “in any way, shape or form” the drive testing that carriers do to measure network performance.

Griff declines to generalize about the network performance of any of the major nationwide carriers; he says it varies too much from place to place, which is precisely why the company is tapping into a crowd-sourcing model to create its maps. 

“What we’re trying to do is measure, from an end-user’s perspective, [and] give them visibility [into] whether network performance is getting better or worse,” he says, adding that Root Wireless’ drive testing is a dramatically simplified version of what carriers do.

The intent is not to continuously scout and drive test markets. Rather, the company is using volunteers who download an app to their device and allow Root’s servers to gather information about service quality. That data will be used to develop maps for consumers so that they can better compare coverage and other characteristics before they buy, thereby cutting down on the number of returns that retailers have to handle.

Last month, Root Wireless and CBS Interactive teamed to introduce the Root Coverage service with CNET in a non-exclusive publishing deal that allows the tech-product news site to post results. Charts are available for eight markets: New York City; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco-San Jose; Seattle-Tacoma; Dallas; and Los Angeles and Orange County. Root is in the process of mapping another 12 metropolitan markets.

The crowd-sourcing strategy gives the company more granular data and is constantly updated and refreshed; it also varies by time of day, with many service quality issues tied to how much traffic the network is experiencing at a given time.

Griff points out that it’s not always beneficial for a carrier to add coverage in certain areas. While it’s possible to build seamless coverage, the market wouldn’t be willing to pay for that grade of service, which would have to be priced above what consumers are used to paying.

The ultimate goal is to get Root’s data into stores, like big-box retailers that sell multiple carriers’ service. Ensuring that the consumer is better matched with the best device and carrier for them will reduce the number of phones that are returned, which is where retailers end up losing big time, he says.

Root doesn’t want to negatively impact the usability of any of the devices that work for it, so it’s been selective about how and when it gathers data and minimizes the power requirements so as not to drain batteries, Griff says.

The company does plan to develop for the iPhone, but it will work differently than it does on other platforms. Platforms like Research In Motion, Android and Windows Mobile give access to multiple networks, whereas the iPhone accesses only AT&T’s network. Plus, Apple does not allow background apps, and Root isn’t interested in going after the jail-broken phone market.

Besides network performance, the company is interested in how well specific devices work – a device’s performance can vary even among the same models. That’s a long-term effort, but the plan is to gather and share data at the device level.

More Broadband Direct 11/23/09:
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•  Root Wireless gets new funding
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