Escaping the Tyranny of Line of Sight in WLANs


When the fixed-wireless industry imploded last year, carriers such as
AT&T Wireless and Sprint said the technology’s dependence on a clear
line of sight made delivering broadband wireless service to
residential customers unprofitable. Today, as AT&T Wireless sheds the
last vestige of its foray into fixed-wireless, companies see a bright
future in “non-line-of-sight” alternatives.

Pointred Technologies‘ MicroRed Wireless Broadband Access product
uses the 2.5 GHz band to route around “shadow areas” which previously required first-generation fixed-wireless systems to have a clear line of sight to their base stations.

The MicroRed base station, with its tiny footprint, can be
installed on any elevated point — a telephone pole, high building or
water tower. Because of its “pay-as-you-grow” nature, MicroRed
Wireless Broadband Access can be easily expanded to fill any gaps in
coverage.

PointRed says that one MicroRed base station is capable of
supporting multiple 802.11 connections to Wi-Fi hot spots.

Iospan Wireless, like PointRed has changed the fixed-wireless
landscape by both beefing up the technology and bringing access
closer to Earth.

In January, Iospan showed off its non-line-of-sight service at a
gathering of broadband companies meeting in San Jose, California.

Iospan demonstrated its technology by blasting a highly-targeted
and compressed beam of radio waves through the hotel wall where the
meeting was held and then through a metal cookie sheet placed in
front of an indoor antenna. Iospan told the assembled crowd that previous
fixed-wireless signals would have stopped at the wall and been killed
by the cookie sheet.

Another difference between the fixed-wireless of today and the
first-generation of last year is the physical height operators must utilize to
ensure a clear signal. Previously, fixed-wireless required a
1,000-foot tower to reach rooftop antennas. Today’s systems need to
be only 50 to 100 feet above ground to reach antennas little bigger
than a pizza box located indoors or outdoors.

Netro, which recently paid $54 million in cash and stock for
AT&T Wireless’ failed fixed-wireless unit, shares the playing field with another maker of
non-line-of-sight equipment called NextNet.

NextNet, which claims to have been the first company to offer
non-line-of-sight gear in the U.S., is among the many fixed-wireless
companies lured to rural areas — the most attractive market for
broadband wireless. Since late 2001, NextNet has beamed the wireless
Internet to about 130 residents of Pocahontas, Iowa.

A survey by the Broadband Wireless Exchange shows fixed wireless coverage
more than doubling during 2001. The survey of
wireless ISPs found 1,966 markets where fixed wireless is available
— up from the year 2000 when there were just 723 markets.

Of those markets listed in the survey, the top 10 locations for fixed wireless are in
rural areas of states such as California, Illinois and
Texas. While served by major telecom firms such as Qwest Communications or SBC
Communications, the areas weren’t offered DSL access to the Internet.

Susan Lee, Pointred president and CEO, says she considers “areas with
lower population densities” where it is not cost-effective for wired
or wireless broadband services as being ripe for the latest version of fixed
wireless Internet access.

Carriers fled the fixed-wireless arena last year, saying
there were just too few markets for a faulty technology. Now, giants like
Sprint are taking their first tentative steps using new
non-line-of-sight systems. While publicly saying fixed-wireless remains
in the distant future, Sprint is actively testing next-generation
equipment in Montreal, Houston, and San Jose, California.

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