• United States

Wireless broadband update

Feb 16, 20044 mins
Unified Communications

Services proliferate, new technologies promise better range and indoor antennas

Last time we talked about satellite, the ultimate wide-area broadband technology. This time we go to the opposite end of the broadband spectrum to discuss community-based wireless broadband, also known as fixed wireless broadband, among other things. Providers of the service like to call themselves wireless ISPs (WISP), putting the emphasis on the service rather than its delivery method.

With fixed wireless broadband, an antenna with transceiver can connect to client transceivers (either outdoor antennas or indoor units) up to seven miles away. Some providers demand line-of-sight; others don’t by reflecting the signal using either Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum or Multi-channel Multipoint Distribution Service. The most common frequencies are 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, using radio waves short enough to penetrate bad weather.

Central antennas (since they include a transmitter and a receiver they’re technically transceivers) look like cell phone antennas but they sit atop taller towers. Client transceivers look either like the bottom of a small pizza box or a cricket bat affixed to the side of a home or building. Newer systems using non-line-of sight technologies might use a “wireless modem” that sits inside next to your computer.

Internet entrepreneur types who have a home or building on a hill or access to a tower can jump into the wireless broadband business. You can order a turnkey kit for a few thousand dollars. BBWExchange lists scores of vendors in the wireless market, including 15 companies promising complete turnkey systems. Check out the Broadband Wireless Exchange and the Association for Community Networks for details.

Although most WISPs offer broadband packages with higher downstream speed than upstream, (ranging from 384k/128k bit/sec up to 3000k/1000k bit/sec on the high end), the technology doesn’t limit speeds in either direction. A few providers offer 4500k/4500k bit/sec packages, the equivalent of three T-1 data channels. Providers can even make special arrangements to get you up to 108M bit/sec on some access points.

Finding WISPs can be tough because they tend to be small companies with little advertising budget. Check out Broadband Wireless Exchange for its directory, and also look at WCA International. And by all means, if a neighbor tacks a pizza box antenna to his house, ask who provides service.

If you’re concerned about wireless security, don’t be. Transceivers at client locations are security-keyed to the base station transceivers, unrecognized client transceiver addresses are ignored. Users of some service providers also must provide a username and password to establish connections.

Because many offerings require an external transceiver at the client, expect some upfront cost, as with satellite. Most fees are in the $200 to $500 range, with higher prices based on distance, throughput or commercial needs. The next two years promises more wireless modems on the desk and fewer outdoor hardware attachments.

Speaking of the future, WiMAX is expected to make its commercial debut in mid 2005. This higher power, longer reach wireless technology (IEEE standard 802.16) will service clients up to 30 miles away from the central access point. That means entire small towns can be broadband enabled with one tower. In 2006, we should see IEEE 802.20, which will provide mobile wireless connections and support for clients moving at up to 60 mph.

Consolidation will probably reduce the “community” part of wireless networking over the next two years as smaller WISPs will have trouble competing with larger companies in the most profitable (populated) areas. Already, some WISPs work with national ISPs such as EarthLink. But the community spirit lives on, and some WISPs will always fill niches missed by national providers. Other resources for connecting you and your neighbors can be found at Free NetworksWorking Wireless and Navigator Wireless.

This community wireless movement beams all over the world.