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1.1 The Wireless Last Mile
In October 2002, at Owensboro, a small Kentucky city on the Ohio
River, after a five-month pilot program, the local electricity
and water provider, Owensboro Municipal Utilities (OMU), rolled
out a high-speed broadband service to the city's 58 000 residents
at US $25 a month, just $2 more than what many were paying for
low-speed dial-up access. In a short six months since launching
service, OMU Online has connected more than 700 customers with
broadband access. Currently, it has a backlog of several hundred
connections, and expects to have a total of 1,500 customers by
the end of the year.
Two months earlier and 3000 km away, in Klamath Falls, Ore., a
small start-up company, Always On Network Inc. (Chiloquin, Ore.),
began serving up broadband to 30 test customers, converting them
into paying customers a few months later.
What make these enterprises novel aren't the data rates, which
aren't exceptional for broadband, at 250-1000 Kb/s. It's the way
that the bits are delivered-wirelessly-at least for the critical
last mile to the home. Bypassing the copper wires that connect
a phone company's central offices to its customers, these wireless
Internet service providers can deliver broadband more cheaply
than digital subscriber lines (DSLs) and can reach out to rural
homes and others not currently served at all except by dial-up.
The two providers are destined to be midwives to the next generation
of broadband: wireless metropolitan-area networks (MANs). Propelled
in part by a new standard, IEEE 802.16, wireless MANs are expected
to do for neighborhoods, villages, and cities what IEEE 802.11,
the standard for wireless local-area networks, is doing for homes,
coffee shops, airports, and offices.
The reason is that OMU and Always On represent opposing approaches
to wireless MANs from two of the technology's top system vendors,
Alvarion Ltd. (Tel Aviv, Israel, and Carlsbad, Calif.) and Soma
Networks Inc. (San Francisco). Alvarion has embraced the 802.16
standard and is a founding member of the WiMax Forum (San Jose,
Calif.), an industry consortium created to commercialize it and
a corresponding standard from the European Telecommunications
Standards Institute known as HIPERMAN. The institute is based
in Sophia Antipolis, France.
Alvarion's existing wireless last-mile products, and those of
the other WiMax members, are designed for wireless Internet service
providers (WISPs), making the connection between homes and the
Internet backbone that lets end users bypass their telephone companies.
Soma, reluctant to abandon or change a five-year odyssey of its
wireless MAN technology development, and believing it to be superior
to anything its competitors have, is ready to stand apart from
the standard and go it alone. Its system, while eminently usable
by WISPs, is chock full of quality-of-service features that help
it transport voice-over-Internet-protocol packets. That means
it's especially well positioned to be adopted by the phone companies
Andrew B. King of Web Site Optimization LLC (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
predicts that 50 percent of all Internet access will be broadband
by July 2004, and that this will climb to two-thirds just a year
later. But if the future of telecommunications lies in broadband
services, that only spells more trouble for phone companies. They've
staked their broadband futures on DSL, which provides data rates
10-20 times as fast as dial-up on the same old copper phone lines.
Creating a wireless network is relatively simple. At its heart
is a base station, which can be put on top of a building's roof,
a cellular tower, or even a water tower. The base station is the
bridge between the wired world of the Internet, on one end, and
subscribers, with whom it is connected by radio waves, on the
other. With each station generally serving a 10- to 15-km radius,
base stations can be put up where-and only where-they're economically
Dan Stanton, Always On's chief operating officer, says he needs
$4.2 million to pay for a base station and enough home devices
for the 6000 households it plans to sign up within a 500-km2 area
centered on Klamath Falls. Stanton says that the return on that
investment would be $2.5 million per year. Even if that figure,
and the 6000 subscribers, were to prove unrealistic, it is clear
that the costs of serving a rural area are quite a bit lower than
they are for wired DSL
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