Wireless Wonderland: Unlicensed Wireless Broadband in North America

Wireless Wonderland: Unlicensed Wireless Broadband in North America

Patrick Leary is chief evangelist for Alvarion, a service provider dealing in point-to-multipoint broadband wireless access. Steve Stroh is editor of Focus on Broadband Wireless Internet Access. Their talk at WTF 2004 incorporated insights on wireless broadband access, empowering rural communities, and competing wireless methods. What follows is a partial transcript of their talk.

Patrick Leary: The story here is about the first mile in rural America. Wireless broadband is the great equalizer of broadband technologies. The telephone companies have got their DSL. Cable companies have their cable. There's even satellite. But in terms of controllable infrastructure, wireless can be deployed by anyone. It changes what it means to be a carrier.

In 2003, $85 million was spent on unlicensed wireless broadband product in the United States. Base stations to CPE purchased were acquired at an estimated 1:15 ratio. In other words, about $6 million was spent on base stations. At a high average of $500 per CPE, about $79 million, that accounts for almost 160,000 unlicensed wireless providers.

If you look at Wi-Fi, there's a lot more than 2.4 GHz. There's 900MHz and 5GHz. That's a hell of a lot of spectrum. Most operators use these bands in common, in tandem, as part of their larger networks. This year, there's a lot of new products coming out.

But if you look at the people who are deploying out there, it's not just maverick wireless ISPs, even though most of them still have the rural characteristic. They're telcos, utilities, cellulars, cable, and municipalities. The wireless ISPs were the early adopters. They hate the telcos more than anyone. They brought us to the dance. Telcos are quite significant. 86% of all independent telcos list broadband as very important to their futures. There are more than 2,200 municipal-owned utilities. All by definition consider community needs a top priority. There are 57,000 small towns in the U.S. All must have broadband to survive, and they are increasingly unwilling to wait for a commercial operator to ride to the rescue. It's too important to them. They're losing business. They're moving to adjacent towns.

We're going to jump into a few examples, and you'll notice that none of them are Wi-Fi based. The wireless LAN stuff was designed to connect nearby, related users into the shared private network. Wireless broadband access was designed to connect users whose only relationship is geographic proximity into a commercial network.

AMA Techtel in the panhandle of Texas is interesting because they've been in small towns for 53 years or so. They cover 20,000 square miles, and they've got the largest continuous unlicensed wireless broadband network in the U.S. with 6,000 subscribers. It's a two-hour drive from one end of their network to the other. Where's the fiber? Not here. They can get redeployable capacity and free right of way. Diode is a subsidiary of Diller Telephone, which has been in rural Nebraska since 1888. Where's the fiber here? You must be joking. At about 2.5 people per household, fiber is unthinkable. Who's going to pay for it? Owensboro Municipal Utilities in Kentucky has 1,900 wireless broadband subscribers in about five by five miles. They're now expanding outside of their region. If you look at their network and how tight their cells are, that's the nature of the utility. Where's the fiber? These guys have it. There's lots of fiber in the ground that connects them to the larger business, but it was not economical to build it to the home.

Midwest Wireless in Minnesota is one of the top 20 U.S. cellular carriers with more than 350,000 cellular customers. They had to create a separate business to move into wireless broadband, so they created ClearWave. Where's the fiber? Why, when they have more than 200 towers already in place? All they need to do is hang the radios. Wheatland Broadband is another utility that serves 16,000 households with electric power in western Kansas. In the first 30 months, they got almost 2,000 wireless broadband subscribers. With less than three households per square mile, fiber isn't going to happen. In Allegany County, two hours northwest of FC, every public office, agency, library, and public service vehicles are connected to the wireless network. There's not a single leased line in the county. The county is the poster child of what's possible for wireless. Our largest wireless deployment was in the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. With 4,000 employees and 600 patrol vehicles, they're pushing applications and updates to people in the field, gaining more than two hours of productivity per officer per day.

Now for a little bit on WiMax. Mostly right now, it's about hype. Intel's creating it, everyone's dipping their toes in the water, but the first product won't come out for a long time. The first interoperability testing won't even begin until late this year at best. Up until this point, it's nothing but noise, folks, and this comes from people who sit on the board with WiMax.

My best case study of a community sitting on the edge is a small town off the coast of Newfoundland. The “big” town is Burgeo. Then there are little communities that hang off the edge. Some of those don't even have voice. They have a shared payphone. But they're born there, they live there, they work there, they pray there, and they die there. Their economy is falling because of the fishing industry. And all their kids want to leave! What's the problem? Well, education and healthcare. The challenge is anything but willingness. What's the solution? Wireless. They created a community partnership that got some money from the Canadian government, and now they do telemedicine sessions every morning and distance learning. It goes 120 kilometers from end to end. Where's the fiber? There's only one way to get those towers in. We had to bring them in with helicopters. And there's only two ways to power them: solar and wind.

These two little guys sitting on the clay in Burgeo are kids. Broadband is about helping them learn, work, and stay in their communities. Broadband needs to be an economic engine to keep things like this vital.

Steve Stroh: The reason I got excited about wireless was because I grew up in a very small town. The Internet would've been a very wonderful thing if it had been there when I was growing up. But it didn't get there until I left, and it got there by wireless. Only after CoastalWave got its system up and running did Verizon deem that DSL was worth bringing to rural Ohio.

Wireless gives you the option of routing around the stupidity of a telco. But there's a much bigger world than that which Patrick has described. Patrick is correct when he says that it's broadband first, wireless second, and Alvarion third. There's all sorts of bandwidth that's license exempt. You can be dirty polluting RF and no one cares because you're only affecting the immediate area. Think of how this is being done is a sprinkler head on a fiber hose. Even with competitive fiber in an urban area, if everyone starts doing this, all the building will have access to bandwidth.

Earlier, there was discussion about Asterisk. It just so happens that the author of Asterisk did a keynote talk at the just-concluded WispCon in Chicago. He was telling the wireless ISPs how to build Asterisk systems. All of a sudden, you've got this weird situation where people can build broadband networks for the express purpose of carrying voice. They're deploying it quietly, and they don't want to be on the radar yet.

I've been waiting for a box that combines Tivo and streaming on-demand video like you get from your computer. It's finally happened. It's a service called Akimbo. Another point that Patrick touched on I disagree with. Wi-Fi is generally not a great infrastructure unless you build it to be a great infrastructure. Thursday's USA Today's Money section talks about Cerritos, California, and how they got fed up with bringing service to their city. They started putting up boxes the size of a toaster over with antennas on streetlights, and the citizens of Cerritas now have Wi-Fi access.

Leary: Ultimately, broadband will be viewed as a utility. That's a very temporary solution.

Stroh: I think we?ve reached a situation where Wi-Fi is the standard by which we measure success. It's pulling suppliers, and it's causing broadband wireless to adapt to the deficiencies of Wi-Fi.  [Fast Company Now]

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