October 4, 2006 11:08 AM PDT

Helio introduces hybrid wireless service

Helio, Sky Dayton's wireless phone service for young hipsters, has expanded its offering with a new service for laptop users that will provide high-speed Internet connectivity.

On Wednesday the company announced the new service, called Helio Hybrid, which allows for seamless connectivity to both free and commercial Wi-Fi hot spots as well as a nationwide 3G mobile broadband network. The company has struck a deal with Wi-Fi hot spot provider Boingo to provide access to its 55,000 commercial hot spots. And it's using Sprint Nextel's newly built 3G wireless network to offer mobile broadband service.

Helio Hybrid card

Using specially designed software, Helio Hybrid, which combines the use of an external 3G card with a laptop's built-in Wi-Fi capability, automatically searches for the best wireless signal from free private or commercial Wi-Fi hot spots and from Sprint's 3G network. Then it automatically connects users to the best-performing network.

The company claims that its service frees users from setting up and paying for multiple hot-spot logins and provides ubiquitous access by tying in the 3G wireless broadband service.

The move to offer mobile broadband services is a slight divergence from Helio's original business, which launched only a few months ago. Funded by EarthLink and South Korean phone operator SK Telecom, Helio was created to offer young tech-savvy users a new, more advanced mobile-phone experience. But executives at the company explained that adding mobile broadband is a natural extension to the company's overall goal, which is to keep its customers connected to the Internet and to each other at all times.

"Helio members are twice as likely to be laptop users as average consumers," said Rick Heineman, a spokesman for Helio. "These are people who want to stay connected all the time. And they often are outside their homes with their laptops working on projects. We wanted to give them an easy way to harness the connectivity of Wi-Fi and 3G wireless so they can stay connected."

The Helio Hybrid card and Hybrid Connector software are free with a two-year subscription to the service. Users pay $85 per month for the service, regardless of whether they are also Helio phone subscribers. Helio Hybrid is initially available through Fry's Electronics locations and on Helio's Web site. Sprint Nextel, which targets businesses with its wireless broadband service, charges $60 per month. Users can get discounts if they are also Sprint Nextel phone subscribers.

While the Helio Hybrid price may be high for most consumers, the company claims it's not targeting the average user. Helio is going after much more affluent consumers who care about technology and are willing to spend money on services that allows them to do things they couldn't do with other services, Heineman said.

Helio's move to add more services to its portfolio comes as Mobile ESPN, another mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, throws in the towel. Last week, ESPN, the sports channel that is Mobile ESPN's parent, said it would no longer offer the service, which only launched in February. Heineman said this news only solidifies Helio's business model.

"The key to succeeding in the MVNO business is having a truly differentiated service," he said. "You can't rely on one thing like content. It's all about bringing to market something that is totally different from what's been offered before. And that's what Helio is doing."

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