RealTime IT News

Forget the Hype, Fixed Wireless Rocks

CHICAGO -- Kyle Ackerman is making a reality out of what many other established broadband providers say is impossible: bringing high-speed Internet to rural and under-served towns throughout Minnesota.

He joins a growing number of providers who have one goal in mind: connecting people to the Internet using a wireless link, free from dependence on the telephone and cable companies.

Ackerman, chief executive officer of Xtratyme Technologies Inc., the second-largest wireless Internet service provider (WISP) in the nation, took a fledgling operation and built a wireless network that covers much of his state and with plans to cover the rest of it within a couple years.

He's doing it using fixed wireless, the stepchild technology of the broadband Internet world. Called the third pipe of high-speed, behind digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable, the technology has gotten little attention by mainstream media or industry analysts.

The attention it has gotten has all been bad.

Companies like Sprint , Metricom and Winstar all launched highly-ambitious schemes to bring fixed wireless awareness to the fore, and all three have been unsuccessful. Metricom (owner of the Richochet service) filed for Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy protection and Sprint has halted expansion of its service after numerous technical setbacks. It has reportedly shut down service in Denver, one of its first markets.

Winstar had two chances -- it first went bankrupt in April 2001 and was bought up for a song by IDT Corp. , which then scrapped most of the division.

It doesn't paint a rosy picture for fixed wireless. But according to Ackerman, these companies all had one thing in common: they started large when they should have been thinking small. It's a business model, he said, only wireless ISP entrepreneurs have been savvy enough to realize.

Like fixed wireless, dial-up Internet services got their start in the early 1990s on a small scale, with POP servers few and far between. As the demand for the World Wide Web grew, so did the numbers of servers. Such growth is predicted with fixed wireless, as wireless access points grow nationwide.

Ackerman has overlapped his access points to such an extent in southern Minnesota that for more than 600 square miles, Xtratyme service can't properly be called 'fixed' wireless. Using a laptop and a wireless local area network (WLAN) card, his customers can drive down any road in the coverage area and still surf the Internet (though he recommends they don't actually driving to prove this).

Xtratyme is just one of many fixed wireless providers popping up throughout the country to address the demand for broadband outside the big city. Despite the demand -- and Congressional support for any program that bridges the "digital divide" between rural and urban connectivity -- cable, satellite and DSL services have stalled outside the most populated cities.

Both point out the prohibitive costs of laying expensive fiber and coax miles and miles to an area that's underserved. WISPs however, need only put up a tower with a dish every 10-20 miles or so to cover thousands of square miles.

Speaking at the first annual WISP convention (WISPCON) in Chicago this week, Doug Karl, founder of software development company Karlnet (most known for the software that runs Apple's AirPort and Lucent's wireless gear) was optimistic about an industry that has such grass-roots level support and thinks more about the community than the bottom line.

"We're a part of history now, building the infrastructure for the last mile and last five miles of Internet connectivity," Karl said. "The simple fact is that DSL, ISDN and cable are not financially feasible options; wireless is critical for our country's continued prosperity."

The show is the end-result of the demand in the fixed wireless community for a venue that speaks to them specifically. Started almost on a lark two months ago on an e-mail discussion list, ISP-Wireless (a property owned by intnernet.com), the event took on a life of its own.

An employee at one of the WISPs, Prime Directive Quick Link out of North Aurora, IL, decided to take the reins of the show, asking for suggestions from others.

Mike Anderson, the show's organizer, said he wasn't expecting the response.

"We all complain that we don't get what we need (at other ISP conventions), so I sent out a request asking people what they thought the ultimate conference would have," he said. "I got thousands of responses back. This show fits our needs and I couldn't be happier with the results."

The results are in line with what many analysts see as a surge in demand for fixed wireless as other high-speed options falter.

The Strategis Group predicts fixed wireless will have an annual growth rate of 20 percent over the coming years, while the Forrester Group reports the industry will garner up to 10 percent of total broadband revenues in that time.