Wireless data service options explode

Wi-Fi, EV-DO and other offerings provide alternatives to wireline services.

In a few short years, the number of wireless connections to network services is expected to eclipse that of wireline connections. One key enabler is the emergence of new wireless data services intended to provide high-speed access to corporate computing resources for mobile end users, those at remote sites and even those at primary offices.

In a few short years, the number of wireless connections to network services is expected to eclipse that of wireline connections.

One key enabler is the emergence of new wireless data services intended to provide high-speed access to corporate computing resources for mobile end users, those at remote sites and even those at primary offices.

"The expectation is that [users] have broadband connectivity wherever they go," says Mark Lowenstein, managing director of wireless consultancy Mobile Ecosystem.

The wide-area cellular network will be the default network for data connectivity for travelers, Lowenstein says. Then there will be pockets of more compelling broadband coverage, such as Wi-Fi or WiMax.

Here's a look at how some of these offerings are shaking out.

Wi-Fi and EV-DO

Depending on whom you talk to or what you read, Evolution-Data Only is supposed to kill off Wi-Fi services, Wi-Fi is supposed to kill off EV-DO, or the two are supposed to coexist in harmony.

The more familiar Wi-Fi enables 11M to 54M bit/sec wireless access within 300 feet of an access point. The less familiar EV-DO is a 3G cellular WAN technology intended to turn your cell phone into a powerful data transmission tool. It supports speeds of up to 2.4M bit/sec, far exceeding previous generation cellular transmission rates of 144K bit/sec.

EV-DO service is hard to find, although some big service providers are starting to roll it out. Verizon, for example, has two trials - one in San Diego, the other in Washington, D.C. - with plans to expand to more metropolitan areas later this year. Monet Mobile Networks, a small operator, launched service in Duluth, Minn., two years ago.

Wi-Fi hot spots are more plentiful, but customer acceptance has been lukewarm because of pricing and coverage issues, among others. Workers accessing the service at hot spots in coffee houses and airports have been charged multiple connection fees between $6 and $10 when moving between hot spots. Coverage has been spotty, which makes signing up for monthly service with one provider risky and potentially expensive.

Such issues explain why some users are turning to their cellular providers, some of which have EV-DO networks. Although data rates are slower, service is "free" under existing cellular contracts, and quality and coverage are predictable.

Nonetheless, Wi-Fi service providers see their offerings living peacefully alongside EV-DO.

"Is Wi-Fi going to be everywhere? Everywhere where it makes sense, yes," says Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing for Wayport, which provides hot-spot access in hotels and airports. "Customers that we serve are always looking to be best connected. When they're in a hot spot, they're best connected to Wi-Fi; when they're not in a hot spot, they're best connected to a wide-area network."

Lowden says Wayport connects 350,000 people to its service per month and that the number is growing 15% to 20% per month.

Boingo Wireless, a company that aggregates hot spots to facilitate roaming, says equipment pricing favors Wi-Fi over EV-DO. Many mobile devices are or will be Wi-Fi-enabled, while EV-DO cards for laptops or PDAs cost between $200 and $300, says Tamara Steffens, vice president of sales at Boingo.

It's the subscription rate that's turning users away from Wi-Fi as operators price services high to recoup their capital investment in access points and other equipment to Wi-Fi-enable their outlets, Steffens says. Lack of roaming between networks is also an issue, she says.

"We're going to have to convince those hot-spot operators that roaming will actually drive transactions and that volume is really where the entire market makes it," Steffens says. "As soon as that subscription rate for Wi-Fi service comes down and the concept of roaming is solved, the volume of transactions will go up and I think you'll see the whole model fall into place."

Fixed wireless

One market that hasn't made it so far is fixed wireless, which is intended to provide multimegabit last-mile services less expensively and faster than comparable wireline offerings from the RBOCs. Companies such as Teligent and Winstar Communications tried unsuccessfully to sell fixed wireless point-to-point and dedicated Internet access services to businesses in the late 1990s and the last few years.

But XO Communications says the market for fixed wireless - specifically local multipoint distribution systems - has been reinvigorated now that the technology has matured and IT spending has increased. XO says it is the largest owner of fixed wireless spectrum in the 27-GHz to 32-GHz range in the U.S., potentially making fixed wireless available from XO in the top 30 U.S. cities.

Earlier this year, XO announced trials of the service in Irvine, Calif., and San Diego with about 37 customers.

The XO Fixed Wireless Access service offers users 5M, 10M and 20M bit/sec local loop pipes for Ethernet or Internet service. It's designed to bypass the traditional wireline-based last-mile services offered by the RBOCs, which reduces XO's access charges - savings that could be passed on to the customer.

The service also can be provisioned in days vs. weeks or months with RBOC services, XO says. Limitations of the service, however, are a distance of 3 to 5 miles and a line-of-sight requirement.

"You're not going to go out and blanket neighborhoods, that's for sure," says Mark Salter, vice president of fixed wireless services at XO. "You're going to go into high-teledensity areas like central business districts" and thickly populated suburbs, he says.

WiMax

Those high-teledensity and thickly populated suburban areas might find another fixed wireless offering down the road. The emerging IEEE 802.16a WiMax standard is expected to make its commercial debut in mid-2005.

WiMax is a metropolitan-area broadband wireless technology that operates in the spectrum below 11 GHz and supports data rates up to 75M bit/sec. It can connect users up to 30 miles away.

Covad Communications is exploring the possibility of conducting WiMax trials late this year as a way to bridge gaps in DSL coverage, says Ron Marquardt, technical director of strategic development at the competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC).

"There are areas where we can't serve customers because they're behind fiber-fed remote terminals that we don't have access to, and there are other areas that are far enough from a central office that DSL can't provide service either," he says.

The CLEC chose WiMax for its non-line-of-sight capabilities and promise of multi-vendor interoperability, Marquardt says.

WiMax Forum compliance tests are slated for the first quarter of 2005, and Covad wants to have a WiMax business plan in place by then, he says.

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