This Canadian success story is part of this week’s ICT sector series.
To learn more about export opportunities for companies in this sector, please read Canada’s ICT sector is built for exporting.
Imagine a place where you couldn’t just reach in your pocket, grab your mobile phone and send a text or email. It’s a quaint notion — something we might occasionally experience in pockets of cottage country, or on vacation, or while on safari in the Masai Mara.
For a company based in Richmond, B.C., it’s a niche global reality that has turned itself into a lucrative business.
Star Solutions was founded in 1994 and has brought mobile network solutions to far-flung places such as Nunavut, Yukon and northern Quebec. It has also spread its technology outside of Canada, in countries as diverse as Argentina, China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Grenada, Indonesia, Nigeria, Uganda and the United States.
“Our company develops, sells and supports the equipment that enables organizations to set up their own cell phone network,” says Myles Lu, vice-president of marketing and business development. The company supplies base stations — the equipment at the base of cellular towers — and core network systems — the equipment that manages those base stations, enabling a network that allows you to make a phone call or send an email.
Companies in the same industry include Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia Networks, but Star Solutions distinguishes itself by applying innovative technology to address deployment barriers which conventional equipment providers cannot address.
“That’s where we have found a business niche,” Lu says.
Often, it’s straight geography that brings the company and its customers together. A customer in Alaska, for example, uses Star Solutions’ equipment to provide cell service to more than 200 villages in the rural parts of the state.
“They don’t have fibre everywhere in Alaska — it’s a lot of satellite backhaul, and the performance of conventional equipment is poor because of the satellite transmission delay,” Lu said. “So we added intelligence to our remote systems to help deploy over those types of situations.”
In Africa, Star Solutions has brought mobile service to remote towns where even basic telephony services were not available. In this location, the company’s selling feature is that their technology consumes less power so they can deploy it with solar energy, for example.
“In that case, we helped solve some of the problems that conventional equipment doesn’t tackle,” Lu said.
Their second niche area is to supply connectivity to enterprises and private network users. “We have deployments on most cruise ships worldwide,” Lu said. “We’ve discovered that mines and other remote locations may also want networks for internal operations and communications.”
Their final customer area — public safety and emergency communications — is a new one in which they see tremendous opportunity for growth.
“During disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, our technology was brought in to restore the mobile network so first responders could co-ordinate their emergency response activities,” Lu said. “One of the big trends around the world is for first responders and policing bodies to set up their own public safety broadband networks. The technology used in these networks is the same as what we supply for mobile operators. With our products, first responders can provide instant response when there’s an incident, whether it’s devastation, like Katrina, or just a situation for which they need a temporary network in a particular place.”
In addition to being a one-stop shop that supplies all the equipment necessary to set up the network, Star Solutions provides ongoing technical support to their customers to make sure they are trained on the equipment and also able to take advantage of any new features and capabilities.
“We form long-term relationships with our customers, and organizations look to us to help them address their ongoing mobile communications network needs,” Lu said, naming customers such as Alaska Wireless Network, Sure South Atlantic, Bell Mobility and AT&T Wireless Maritime Services.
“EDC has a really good network globally and they’ve made a number of good introductions for us,” Lu said. “Project financing is often a requirement to execute certain project bids so they’ve helped us in that. As a smaller company, their support can make a difference in our ability to reach more potential customers and markets.”
An interview with Myles Lu, Star Solutions’ Vice-President of Marketing and Business Development
1. What was your first export sale?
Star Solutions’ first significant export was to Papua New Guinea.
2. How did that first export opportunity arise?
The opportunity came from an inquiry from Papua New Guinea, and our team made several visits to the country over two years before we were finally able to land the supply contract.
3. When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Every export is slightly different. We are more experienced now in analyzing the risks and managing the deliverables of each export.
4. How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
It is easier to check on the backgrounds of the companies you are working with online.
5. What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
Not to be afraid and to properly analyze and manage the risks.