So far the wireless LAN standard 802.11 is attracting all the attention. It gets the hype and the headlines. It has the snazzy stage name and the cyber-cool, urban guerrilla imagery of Pringles potato chip can antennas beaming out from apartment window sills.
But it is actually Fixed Wireless Broadband (FWB), Wi-Fi' s country cousin in the WAN world, that could become the greater instigator in reshaping public policy, user behavior and the business environment in the United States and elsewhere.
A bill in Congress currently under negotiation with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would turn over 255 megahertz of spectrum in the 5 gigahertz band from the military for commercial last mile services. Citing the buzz around Wi-Fi, the sponsors of the "Jumpstart Broadband Act" by Senators Barbara Boxer and George Allen believe they can invigorate the still-sagging tech sector by creating opportunities for new broadband delivery mechanisms.
FWB providers in the existing unlicensed band are already having a greater commercial impact than their much-ballyhooed Wi-Fi counterparts. Wireless ISPs delivering last mile broadband collected $265 million from end-users in 2002, according to the research firm Instat/MDR based in Scottsdale, Arizona. That is nearly twice the size of the $136 million market for 802.11 hotspots last year.
Little Mesh on the Prairie
The ad-hoc nature of wireless broadband makes it a flexible and economical technology ideally suited for incremental deployment remote or sparsely-populated areas. Neil Mulholland,, president of the FWB service provider Prairie iNet estimates that half of the 122 communities that he reaches in rural Illinois have no landline broadband networks. Even in urban and suburban districts, Mulholland adds, wireless can fill in the inevitable dead zones that cable and DSL miss.
Like Wi-Fi, wireless broadband can also utilize mesh network technology and decentralize peer-to-peer systems.
"Each subscriber is not only a receiver but also a repeater... each additional user can add capacity to the network," said Murray. "This is architecturally different than the centralized, subscriber model of the cable, DSL and cellular companies."
Jumpstart advocates also hope that FWB can create an alternative to the cable/DSL hegemony that critics blame for America's last mile conundrum that has left many potential customer bases stalled, stranded or lacking robust and competitive services.
"Policy makers in Congress have been scratching their heads looking around for parallel services," said Chris Murray of the non-profit group Consumers Union. "We see unlicensed spectrum as a third way for consumers to get access." In contrast to the phone and cable conglomerates that dominate landline networks, FWB is still fueled by small-time wildcatters such as Prairie iNet. Daryl Schoolar, an analyst at Instat/MDR, estimates there are 1800 wireless broadband service providers and most are "privately-held entrepreneurs with a few thousand customers. These are the types who starting dial-up ISPs in the mid-1990s."
Liberating the Airwaves
Adding more spectrum as Jumpstart suggests may be one way to grow the opportunity for broadband, but some of the thought leaders in this area of wireless have stronger proposals for challenging the status quo. Dewayne Hendricks, Chief Executive Officer of the Dandin Group in Fremont, California and a technical advisor to the FCC, has been an energetic proponent and implementer of last-mile networks via the 5 gigahertz band in exotic locales such as the Kingdom of Tonga and Native American reservations in North Dakota and Montana.
While Hendricks believes Jumpstart has "some aspects to motivate innovation" , he is far more interested in eliminating the current system of spectrum allocation by the federal government and replacing it with an entirely new wireless regimen.
Hendricks and others such as Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig are pushing for a spectrum commons that would make the airwaves a free pubic resource and pave the way for flexible, frequency-hopping radio technologies that propel an innovative, egalitarian for wireless. The idea is articulated in Lessig's influential book "The Future of Ideas".
As Lessig writes on his web site; "Rather than property, spectrum should be left in a 'commons' or in a public space. Like a freeway, or a public park, use of a spectrum commons would neither be regulated nor propertized. Its use would, instead, be free for anyone, subject only to a few simple rules about devices. Just as you can go where you wish on Route 66, but not with a go-cart or with a tank, so too could you do what you wish with spectrum in a commons, so long as you would obey similarly minimal coordinating rules."
The best example of just such a system, where technology coordinates use without a market controlling allocation, is the Internet itself. While the wires and computers that get connected to the Internet are mostly privately owned, Internet protocols create an effective commons for network communication. The protocols assure coordination. But nothing in that simple protocol can guarantee that Internet resources get devoted to the highest and best use."
From a technical perspective, Hendricks adds, the problem with existing FCC policy is that it is based on ideas that date back to the sinking of the Titanic nearly a century ago. Advances in spread spectrum radio have made systems of governing the airwaves as a scarce resource obsolete and irrelevant. However, Hendricks adds that he does not expect the FCC to adopt his radical changes anytime soon, but also worries that countries with more progressive policies are going to develop wireless services that "make us look like cavemen".
In the meantime, expect the unlicensed FWB activity now on the fringes to creep into the mainstream, just as Wi-Fi did in the past eighteen months. Mulholland of Prairie I-Net expects that both landline broadband providers and cellular operators who aspire to 3G-type services will end up incorporating FWB into hybrid business plans. At the United States' annual Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association event in New Orleans this March, Wi-Fi stole the show with a flurry of announcements including Intel's Centrino chip, T-Mobile's tie-up with Boingo and Cisco's acquisition of Linksys.
Look for a similar round of moves around FWB during the next year. Although not everyone is moving forward with FWB, (Nokia cancelled its Rooftop product line recently), big players such as Motorola, Cometa, Verizon and Sprint are all either selling wireless broadband products in the U.S. market right now or looking to get in the game. All they need now is a catchy nickname.
Dmitri Ragano is a writer focused on mobile technology. After spending the past year in Asia, he is currently based in Southern California.