Broadband wireless access is becoming a viable way to compete against (or complement) DSL and cable broadband. We attended the WCA conference in San Jose to get a better understanding of the key issues and a sense for how real an impact this technology will have.
"Overnight Successes" Take Years
"New technologies" which appear to take off "overnight" have usually struggled for years before coming of age. Everyone's favorite example is the Internet, which "suddenly" blossomed in the late 1990's. Its seeds actually go back to the Arpanet in 1969. But it took the creation of the personal computer, Tim Berners-Lee's "World-Wide Web" project and the development of Mosaic for Windows before the pieces fell into place.
It looks like wireless broadband data is coming of age. Wi-Fi is now a recognized force in the home and office. Our focus in this article goes outside buldings and beyond Wi-Fi (a term now wildly misused to encompass all kinds of wireless broadband movement). We're seeing signs that broadband wireless access to the home is on its way to becoming a viable way to compete against (or complement) DSL and cable infrastructures. Technologies to send broadband data from a central point to the home, thru the air, reliably and cost-effectively, seem to be emerging.
Sprint started offering wireless broadband service several years ago, but the technology required line of sight between a tower and the home, and a professional installer to mount and aim an outdoor antenna. Broadband wireless is offered by many small providers, called WISPs (Wireless ISPs), mostly companies whose names you would not recognize.
Several emerging technologies overcome the line of sight requirement and can be installed by the end user. The remaining impediments appear to be commercializng these technologies, reducing the price of the equipment and finding spectrum for it.
Here are some recent announcements that caught our attention:
The US government seems to be getting more interested in broadband wireless. Senators Allen and Boxer recently introduced legislation, dubbed the Jumpstart Broadband Act, to promote a wireless approach to broadband deployment. It calls for the FCC to allocate not less than 255 megahertz of contiguous spectrum in the 5 gigahertz band for unlicensed use by wireless broadband devices.
The WCA Conference -- A Closer Look
When Kyle Ackerman, CEO of Xtratyme, pointed out that the Wireless Communications Association's conference was taking place in San Jose just after CES, it seemed like a great opportunity to take a closer look at the wireless broadband landscape. We were already in Las Vegas, so it was only an airplane hop away.
Andrew Kreig, WCA President, graciously welcomed our press coverage of the event. We were surprised and pleased to note attendees from around the globe and were told that attendance at the conference had grown. The exhibit area was a busy and active scene. ( www.wcai.com )
First, a Few Terms
Since we have had little prior coverage of wireless broadband access, we'll start by defining a few of the most fundamental terms. The first pair is "LOS" and "NLOS". LOS means "line-of-sight" and indicates that the path between the source and receiver of the broadband signal is free of obstacles. NLOS means "not-LOS" - some use "N" to mean "non" and other to mean "near". In either case it indicates that the technology has some ability to penetrate walls and trees. The ideal would be for a broadband receiver to work as well indoors as a mobile phone.
The second pair - "licensed" and "license-exempt" - relates to the frequencies in which the RF transmission occurs. These are critical distinctions since they relate to what kind of terrain the transmissions can be handled over, whether time money must be spent to obtain government licenses, and how congested the frequencies might be. (For one source of definitions see http://www.odessaoffice.com/wireless/definitions.htm ).
Our Bottom Line
A large number of publications, Web sites and organizations are devoted specifically to understanding and tracking the technologies and companies involved in broadband wireless. As with other elements of our coverage, our goal in attending WCA was to understand the relationship of broadband wireless to other elements of the residential broadband ecosystem and to gauge its impact on the development of compelling consumer applications. We came away with a better understanding of the key issues and questions and a sense for the directions things are heading.
Here are a few of the issues we had in mind when coming to the conference and a first assessment of some of the answers.
Broadband wireless is becoming a viable alternative to delivering residential broadband
For broadband wireless to be a widespread solution, we believe it must meet the following criteria: not require line of sight access, be customer-installable, be reliable in various weather and terrain, and be competitively priced. A new generation of equipment is just coming to market which seems to meet most of these criteria; upcoming full-scale deployments will test this.
Remaining issues include whether successful players can operate in the license-exempt spectrum and how quickly vendors can reduce costs to be competitive with widely-deployed solutions like cable modems.
Broadband wireless has advantages over wireline service
Wireline broadband services -- such as cable modem and DSL -- require the user to be at a fixed location; Wi-Fi could extend the range to within 100 feet or so from the home. Broadband wireless can be used both inside and outside the home -- in locations like a cafe or a moving car -- as long as the location is within the wireless provider's coverage range. Such technologies could potentially obviate the need for hotspots (since all spots in a covered area are "hot"). If pricing and performance were roughly comparable, consumers might well prefer broadband wireless over wireline, just as they increasingly choose mobile phones over fixed line.
Broadband wireless isn't only for small companies and rural areas
Clearwire has already started deploying it to cover the core of the Jacksonville metropolitan area. If current trials by Sprint and Verizon prove successful, large, well-known companies are likely to deploy these technologies in major suburban areas. One of the strong interests in broadband wireless access on the part of these companies is cost-effectively increasing their residential broadband coverage beyond the distance limitations of DSL.
Several companies are contending to provide advanced broadband wireless technology
Some of those currently in trial or deployment include IP Wireless, Navini, Arraycom, NextNet Wireless, Alvarion and BeamReach.
Potential for hotspots
There are many business models for hotspots and many companies entering the business. While we think hotspots play a useful role, we think they'll prove most effective in the consumer market as a feature of an existing service. Our personal judgement is that hotspots will prove difficult to justify as a stand-alone business.
Advanced Radio Cells -- A distinctive approach to reducing costs
The high cost of equipment is a major challenge for wireless providers. Wireline providers leverage the power of standards and volumes -- cable modems have fallen to about $50 wholesale. It's hard for wireless providers to compete using low-volume proprietary technologies.
At WCA, Advanced Radio Cells Inc. (ARCi) announced a novel approach: a wireless technology based on cable's DOCSIS protocols. Their solution set combines a Wireless Modem Termination System (WMTS) and transceiver antenna at the base station, and a transceiver antenna and cable modem at the customer site. They demonstrated a system based on modified Motorola DOCSIS technology - a BSR1000 CMTS and a firmware-modified cable modem. James Wong, ARCi VP Marketing, said the technology provides broadband connectivity at 20 Mbps, with full-duplex, low latency communications over the 5 GHz license-free band. The technology is LOS, requiring the installation of an outdoor antenna. We'll be interested to see the results of field tests now under way -- and which service providers pick up on this solution.
( www.arcells.com )
Broadband Wireless World 2003
We're continuing to learn and assess the rationale for broadband wireless - with the potential both to compete and to complement broadband wireline. We'll be attending and speaking at Broadband Wireless World 2003 -- April 9-10 in San Jose, California. The event is targeted at those who want to learn more about the growth in all forms of broadband wireless. We will be speaking in the track on "applications, entertainment and services".
The show focuses on: Fixed Broadband Wireless Access Technology & Business Models; Advanced Fixed Wireless Solutions for Cellular 3G Networks; Unlicensed Wireless Access Networks; 2nd Generation, Non Line-of-Sight Solutions; Wireless Hot Spot Networks.
Free trade show passes are available if you register early at http://www.shorecliffcommunications.com/bwwf03/default.asp