DSL speeds, cellular coverage

SAN FRANCISCO (09/22/2003) - Most of the people who have broadband Internet access love it, but not everyone who wants it can get it. DSL, cable, fiber optics, and other wired high-speed alternatives simply aren't available to every office and home. But what if you could get a wireless broadband data connection as easily as, say, a cell phone signal?

Satellite and so-called fixed wireless services have delivered broadband wireless Internet access for several years, but they've typically required dishes and/or line-of-sight access to transmission towers, making them expensive and a hassle to deploy. A new generation of wireless technologies, however, eliminates these problems. We tried such services from Navini Networks Inc. and IPWireless Inc. and were impressed by the speed and ease of use that both provided.

Wireless, Not Wi-Fi

We tested Navini's technology in Houston, where Sprint is trying it out. Navini's wireless modem measures 6.5 inches tall with its 2-inch antenna raised, 6.5 inches deep, and 2 inches wide. After attaching the unit to a laptop with an ethernet cable, we were immediately able to configure our connection by launching a browser and entering an assigned IP number--no software installation required. Top speeds within the trial coverage area were 1.5 megabits per second for downloads and 987 kilobits per second for uploads, with typical speeds about 10 percent less. Navini says carriers should be able to offer its service at costs competitive with those of DSL and cable, whose speeds typically run from 256 kbps to 1.5 mbps.

We tested IPWireless's technology on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where basic residential service is offered commercially by a local ISP, Maui Sky Fiber, for US$30 a month. After installing a driver and hooking up IPWireless's external USB modem (a device slightly larger than a typical PDA), we were automatically taken to a sign-up Web site and were soon experiencing download speeds between 300 kbps and 400 kbps (the ISP sets the limits; IPWireless says that its technology can support speeds of up to 3 mbps for downloads and 1 mbps for uploads). The IPWireless service kept us connected as we drove around in the more populated areas, something that Navini's technology doesn't yet do.

Better Than DSL

In Jacksonville, Florida, where an ISP called Clearwire Technologies Inc. has deployed IPWireless, roofing contractor James Stepp says that a single Clearwire account with multiple IP addresses serves his laptop in the field as well as desktop PCs in the company's office and a colleague's home office. "I can e-mail the office and get a bid right away," he says. For Stepp, Clearwire was a welcome replacement for another ISP's unreliable DSL service.

Both IPWireless and Navini use base stations that can be deployed on existing cell phone sites, a potential that would allow a company like Sprint to compete against wired broadband service providers. In fact, IPWireless is based on the UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) standard for next-generation cellular phone networks. Navini's service isn't based on a standard, but the company is participating in the IEEE's working group for a new wireless broadband standard, 802.20, designed specifically for mobile users.

Intel, meanwhile, backs yet another IEEE standard, called 802.16a or WiMax, which originally focused on fixed wireless infrastructure for cell phone sites and the like but is developing end-user-friendly variants. And while today's Wi-Fi (802.11b) hot spots typically have a range of no more than 100 to 200 feet, companies like Vivato have developed technologies to extend Wi-Fi's reach to over a mile. Other companies that have developed wireless broadband technologies include ArrayComm and Flarion.

IDC analyst Shiv Bakhshi says these technologies could benefit several types of users, ranging from businesspeople like Stepp, who travel within a city, to users in homes and offices that can't get wired broadband, or to those who can get it but prefer a wireless service. The services we tested seem to work well, but which ones will win, who will deliver them, and how quickly they will arrive remain unclear.

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