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Wireless networking gets a boost

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(IDG) -- Waking from a year-long slumber and recently bursting free from some lingering technical and regulatory restrictions, fixed broadband wireless technology may soon be in a position to catch up with its Internet-access rivals: DSL and high-speed cable.

Fixed wireless, also known as MMDS (Multipoint Multichannel Distribution Services), flickered with promise a little more than a year ago -- especially when chief providers WorldCom and Sprint were in the throes of their heated run at a telecom megamerger. In fact, the technology was central to that merger's vision because it involved a grand plan to zip right past local phone and cable companies in the delivery of broadband services.

Fixed wireless makes use of the wireless spectrum for data transmission, shooting signals between carrier-owned base stations and transceivers affixed to customer sites within a 35-mile radius.

"But MMDS hasn't taken off yet. We've yet to see WorldCom and Sprint aggressively roll out markets," says Elliott Hamilton, an analyst at Washington-based Strategis Group. That may be about to change in a big way, Hamilton continues. "The technology itself is undergoing some changes to make it better."

Seeing clearly

A host of new vendors are trying to tackle MMDS' line-of-sight restrictions caused when buildings or terrain standing between towers and receivers interfere with the signal. This phenomenon has saddled fixed wireless technology with stringent requirements that receivers be in an almost direct line with towers.

Vyyo is one company working to make fixed wireless a formidable competitor of DSL and cable. The Cupertino, Calif.-based producer of wireless hubs, base stations, and wireless modems is working to incorporate technical advances that help get past the line-of-sight restrictions which have held down fixed wireless.

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"But it is not just the line-of-sight issues per se," says John O'Connell, CEO of Vyyo. "For us to make this a viable business for service providers, the cost-per-subscriber rates have got to be within a range in which they can offer the service and still make money."

Advances in OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) technology being honed by Cisco and others also tackle line-of-sight issues. OFDM seeks to overcome line-of-sight, distance reach, subscriber coverage, and antenna size problems plaguing existing wireless systems.

On top of those advances, however, companies such as Vyyo are working to get the most out of the signal. "In order for [a particular user] not to use up too much of the available capacity, one must have good signal encoding when transmitting something," O'Connell says.

WorldCom's Broadband Solutions division COO Kerry McKelvey agrees that line of sight is just one in a long laundry list of advances that will ultimately spur fixed wireless. "We still need some of the line-of-sight technology we have been looking for, then we need [customer premise equipment] costs to come down," he says.

In the enterprise, the rise of fixed wireless options could be crucial. Many sizable corporations now laugh off the notion of leaning on broadband alternatives such as DSL or cable for any significant networking needs. "Small mom-and-pop shops use DSL or cable just because it is really, really cheap. But a company of any significant size is going to need its service to be reliable," says John Threadgill, CIO of Morgan Keegan Regional Investment Brokerage Firm.

Based in Memphis, Tenn., where WorldCom is rolling out its commercial-grade fixed wireless service, Morgan Keegan is betting that broadband wireless will offer price breaks tied to networking speeds and the reliability most enterprises are looking for.

An issue of reliability

However, Morgan Keegan, which is 900 employees strong at its headquarters, is worried about more than just the price tags attached to networking options. To put fixed wireless access alongside its wireline connectivity in the main office, it needed a high degree of comfort in the technology for the company, Threadgill says.

"We tried DSL and those kinds of newer technologies, and they were just not as stable as I need them to be," Threadgill explains. "Fixed wireless also takes away a lot of problems you have in the wired world, where it can take six weeks to put in a frame-relay circuit."

WorldCom claims the technology is as much as to 30 times faster than dial-up modems with speeds from 384Kbps to 1Mbps for download and 384Kbps to 512Kbps for upload. The Clinton, Miss.-based carrier is also vowing to have fixed wireless service installed within five days of getting approval to situate the appropriate equipment.

The carrier is also quick to raise the specter of DSL's notoriously slow installation service -- which drags ISPs, regional phone companies, and others into the process. WorldCom claims fixed wireless service is often available in less than a week.

"DSL has provided a lot of learning for all of us," WorldCom's McKelvey says.

Nevertheless, WorldCom is interested in putting a full plate of broadband options, including DSL, before the enterprise customers it courts.

"Our original plan was to go out with a strong fixed wireless offer," McKelvey continues. "Then we decided the best thing to do is not to sell a specific technology but to sell to business customers high-speed Internet access regardless of the technology," he says.

In fact, WorldCom has used the time since its collapsed merger with Sprint to re-examine its approach to fixed wireless. The company is now first extending fixed wireless options to its business customers.

"We went through quite a long planning process in the summer of 2000," McKelvey says. "We are now targeting small-to medium-sized businesses first rather than consumers."

Meanwhile, Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint is also revving up its fixed wireless plans -- but company executives deny any lull in their roll out of the technology.

"It sure hasn't felt like that around here. As an outsider, it may appear as a lull, but we bought the spectrum and then took several months to roll out the service. In fact, we are the lone player that has committed this much time, dollars, resources, and branding efforts" on fixed wireless, claims Evan Conway, vice president of marketing for Broadband Services at Sprint.

Big-time players

Sprint claims to now have licenses in the MMDS spectrum that cover approximately 30 percent of the country. "We are wildly excited about taking major market share in many cities, since we consider fixed wireless the third leg in a stool," the other two legs in the broadband stool being DSL and cable, Conway says.

It was roughly this time last year when Sprint declared that it had completed a series of company acquisitions that would give it a substantial MMDS footprint. WorldCom had also rolled up a substantial amount of spectrum, and the two began building companion plans to go after broadband business once the merger cleared.

Even now the two carriers don't consider each other fixed wireless competitors, because they are providing service in different markets. And both are hustling to make fixed wireless come across as a viable alternative.

"In many ways, each of our companies would do well if the other is successful. And we're both working to drive down [equipment] costs," Conway says.

Both WorldCom and Sprint have also had to lean on the Federal Communications Commission to prove that their MMDS efforts are alive. The FCC was rumored last fall to be eyeing the MMDS spectrum -- in the 2.1GHz, 2.5GHz, and 2.7GHz ranges -- as an option for needed spectrum for entirely separate 3G (third generation) wireless efforts.

That threat has since passed, for the most part, says Strategis Group's Hamilton. "I don't think MMDS spectrum will be used for 3G," he declares. "WorldCom and Sprint are not going to have their spectrum taken away, especially if they are showing a high degree of activity."

In fact, MMDS activity now stretches well beyond the two carriers. Vendors such as fixed wireless broadband system maker Hybrid Networks, which makes the platforms for Sprint and WorldCom, and others now dot the landscape.

"Then it is a matter of us getting enough of a learning curve so we can reduce the truck rolls and begin more self-installation," Hamilton says.

Truck rolls, a reference to the need to have a service provider show up to have service installed, is one of several complications that hit DSL hard. Another DSL barrier has been the restrictive distances between a user and the phone company's central office facility.

For fixed wireless, the main barrier is now perhaps the limit of the number of cities where the technology is available. But the promise of more availability has some corporate IT managers taking note, Morgan Keegan's Threadgill claims.

"A year ago, you heard a lot of companies talking about fixed wireless. Now you are starting to see a lot of companies coming out with business-class products, and that makes people take it seriously," Threadgill notes.



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