The Wild Wireless West: An old technology stands to challenge cell and wireline carriers

After recently talking to Norman Bangle, managing partner of telecom investment group Stellar Holdings, it seems like the Wild West wildcatting mentality is still alive and well. It’s all legal, filed, and tariffed, but there is still going to be poaching on someone’s territory.

Bangle is on the leading edge of a new wireless product launch that is targeting the fixed phone markets in rural communities. That in and of itself is nothing particularly new, as many cell phone providers have been active in wooing customers away from their wire-line phone towards cell phone plans.

Bangle is basing his plans on an old technology - Personal Handyphone Standard (PHS) - applied in new ways. Sporting the features and economics of a technology deployed and refined in places like China, Japan and Vietnam, Bangle says he can offer a wireless connection to any home in a serving area, for a tenth the cost of any comparable technology. Spangler’s UTStarcom-built Personal Access System (PAS) devices can be fixed phones, cell-like phones and even 128K bit/sec PC cards - all wirelessly supported.

“We look at it as fixed-wireless dialtone to the home. You can overlay a whole market for less than $200 per home with no truck roll, no digging of ditches, no new wires,” Spangler says. “If an [independent operating company] wanted to run new copper to a new home, they’d start with a $250 [network interface device]. We’re less expensive than even that one piece of the wired equation.”

Under the auspices of his Advanced Rural Communications Consortium (ARCC), independent telcos can get help and discounts in launching UTStarcom PAS-based services.  Bangle is chairman of ARCC, which is a group of about 200 equipment vendors and service providers serving rural areas.

The PHS standard is a TDD-TDMA based microcellular wireless communications technology operating in the 1880 to 1930 MHz band. It is used in public PHS networks, PHS-Wireless Local Loop/Fixed Wireless Access networks, corporate indoor PBX applications, and in the home environment. The PHS standard enables a 32K bit/sec bearer capability on each of the 24 TDMA frame slots, allowing 32K bit/sec ADPCM high-grade speech quality and a variety of data transmission applications.

UTStarcom’s PAS PHS system uses base-station transmitters to send signals to users within, for example, a small American city with an area of about 10 square miles. The system can support up to 500,000 subscribers.  Stellar estimates that his average independent operating company user will spend $350,000 to get set up with PAS, using their PCS C, F and G block spectrum. Where independent operating companies don’t have spectrum, Stellar will help lease it from other carriers - something made simpler by the FCC’s pro-leasing decisions of a month ago.

PHS users experience voice quality comparable to wireline service. The technology can reach data speeds of up to 128K bit/sec.

UTStarcom is looking first to independent carriers to adopt the technology in the U.S. Availability and deployment issues are similar to cellular - reception depends on how the network is deployed and signal obstructions in the way. The ability to roam onto a mobile operator's network in the U.S. is on UTStarcom's road map within the next 12 months.

Bangle says that many independent operating companies are looking at the ability to extend their serving areas by launching PAS systems at the borders of their territories to reach customers across franchise boundaries.

If PHS grows beyond niche status in the U.S., the possibilities become very interesting.

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