Obama's broadband stimulus: Will wireless fit the bill?

Does President Obama want WiMAX, 802.11y, LTE for rural broadband?

Could wireless technologies offer the national broadband capabilities President Obama seeks? Although the government has allotted $7.2 billion for broadband deployment in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the bill does not specify what sort of technology the money will be spent on.

When President Obama said during his address to Congress this week that "laying broadband" was going to one of the main priorities of his recently-passed stimulus package, the first question that comes to mind is, "What sort of broadband?"

Although the government has allotted $7.2 billion for broadband deployment in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the bill does not specify what sort of technology the money will be spent on. Rather, it will enable tech companies, telecom companies and ISPs to compete for broadband grants that will be administered by both the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture. And with so many different types of existing and emerging broadband technologies out there right now, it seems that both federal agencies will have a wide array of options to choose from when deciding how to dole out the cash.

Wireless broadband technologies such as should play a major role in any national broadband infrastructure because of their ability to cover large areas with a single base station, thus providing a more cost-effective alternative to deploying fiber-to-the-home in sparsely-populated areas. Harold Feld, the senior vice president for the open media advocacy group Media Access Project, says that one wireless technology that could really take off in the wake of the broadband stimulus package is 802.11y, a new Wi-Fi standard approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) last September that runs over the 3.65 GHz band.

The good thing about the 3.65GHz spectrum, says Feld, is that the technology is "lightly licensed," meaning that  prospective operators can obtain a nationwide license for the spectrum for a comparatively smaller amount of money than they'd pay for an exclusive spectrum license. Feld says that the spectrum has a higher power level than today's available unlicensed spectrum and that it can provide good backhaul in rural areas in the Southwestern and Southern United States. And because the 802.11y standard meets the FCC's requirements for a contention based protocol – that is, a protocol that can allow for multiple users to share the same spectrum – it won't create controversy over potential interference.

But while technology operating over 3.65GHz holds promise, it isn't a magic bullet to connect all areas in the United States. Brett Glass, the owner and founder of the Wyoming-based ISP Lariat Networks, says that companies in his area can't use the 3.65GHz spectrum because they are located within 150 kilometers of an exclusion zone that the government has set up to avoid spectrum interference with satellites. And while most of these exclusion zones located on the along the east and west coasts, there are also areas of states such as West Virginia, Tennessee and Texas where ISPs can't operate on the 3.65GHz band.

In addition to 802.11y, WiMAX services will likely generate buzz as potential national broadband solutions. As an IEEE wireless data standard that typically operates on the 2.5GHz band, WiMAX has been promoted as a potential "third pipe" that could compete with DSL and cable for last-mile connectivity. Sprint last year began offering WiMAX services commercially for the first time in the United States and has achieved downlink speeds ranging from 3.7M to 5Mbps and uplink speeds ranging from 1.8M to 2.6Mbps. Globally, the technology is projected by semiconductor vendor Intel to be available to 800 million people by 2010.

Declan Byrne, the CMO of wireless broadband access vendor Airspan, says that his company has developed WiMAX equipment that operates both the 3.6GHz and the 700MHz spectrum bands. Last September, Airspan signed an agreement with incumbent local exchange carrier FairPoint Communications to supply equipment for a fixed WiMAX network that will reach rural communities in Vermont and New Hampshire. Byrne says that WiMAX's potential to run on the 700MHz band in the near future is a particularly enticing option for mobile broadband operators because the licensed 700MHz spectrum propagates more effectively than the lightly licensed 3.6GHz band.

However, WiMAX is not without its issues. Patrick Knorr, the chief operating officer of cable and broadband provider Sunflower Broadband, says that his company had initially looked into using WiMAX to deliver wireless broadband, but that he became concerned that Sprint so far is the only major carrier to adopt the technology. Now he says Sunflower is studying Long-Term Evolution (LTE), the GSM-based technology that isn't due to be available commercially for roughly two years.

"Listening to industry chatter, WiMAX seems to be losing some momentum," he says. "Verizon, Cox and AT&T are committed to LTE, and wherever the big deployments go is generally where the technology goes… ideally we want a product that can provide fixed wireless and mobile wireless services in rural areas. It looks like LTE is going to fit that mold better."

In addition to its lack of big carrier support, Glass thinks that WiMAX is less likely to spread as far or as quickly as Wi-Fi technologies have because it usually operates on licensed spectrum and will thus be more costly for smaller operators to offer.

"People refer to WiMAX as though there's no other kind of wireless broadband," he says. "We can go farther and better with other technologies, especially on unlicensed spectrum."

Of course, small operators will soon get a boost to their unlicensed spectrum options now that the Federal Communications Commission has approved unlicensed use of the so-called "white spaces" spectrum that are currently unused by television stations on the VHF and UHF frequency bands. Internet companies such as Google and device manufacturers such as Motorola have touted the use of white space spectrum as a way to quickly and cheaply offer mobile broadband capabilities to underserved regions of the United States.

But as with the other methods for delivering wireless broadband, the white space spectrum has some challenges. In the first place, any device operating on white space spectrum is required by the FCC to have sensing capabilities that would  shut down the device if it comes into interference with broadcast spectrum. And from the perspective of handing out government grants, white space broadband networks aren't quite "shovel-ready" yet in the way that other wireless technologies are. Since the government only just approved unlicensed use of white spaces last year – and since some television stations are still struggling to move off their analog networks – it might be a while before white space broadband becomes a reality.

"There seems to be a lot of interest in developing technologies for white spaces," says Gartner analyst Akshay Sharma. "But we might be a few years away before you see any products."

Learn more about this topic

How will the $7.2 billion allotted for broadband stimulus be spent?

FCC unanimously approves unlicensed ‘white space’ spectrum

Nortel exits WiMAX to focus on high-return tech

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