WiMAX is Here But Still Years Away

WASHINGTON — While Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael K. Powell touted the future of wireless broadband, two floors below, wireless industry leaders concluded the future of WiMAX won’t happen anytime soon.

Market leaders discussed the here and now of the metro-area wireless technology formally known as IEEE standard 802.16a at the Wireless Communications Association’s annual meeting this week.

Powell’s brief keynote address Wednesday afternoon was marked by broad generalities, but those that are already delivering product zeroed in on the nuts and bolts of just when a mass market future might arrive.

Charles Townsend, the president of the Aloha Group, which controls the largest 700 MHz spectrum footprint in the United States, said the wireless broadband industry is where the cellular phone business was in 1985.

“Then the cell phone business was targeted at a handful of users in the Chicago area,” Townsend said. “It took 10 years to go from a niche market to where it is today. Cell carriers didn’t really hit until 1992. This is not going to happen overnight.”

With only about 500,000 wireless broadband users today, Townsend noted, “We have a long way to go.” He predicted mass market adoption of wireless broadband to as much as a decade away.

Townsend sees the future of WiMAX in the licensed 700 MHz spectrum range. Two years ago, his Aloha Group spent $43.3 million in an FCC auction to win 77 licenses in the spectrum swath.

The advantages of the 700 MHz range, he said, include wider coverage, better building penetration and no line-of-sight issues in addition to being more cost effective because the wider range requires building fewer cell sites.

Townsend’s spectrum comes from space occupied by UHF television channels 52-59, which are transitioning to digital broadcasting.

“We have a dilemma because some broadcasters are still on the channels,” he said. Despite that, Townsend said, some 25 percent of the U.S. market is open to wireless broadband implementation, including markets in St. Louis, Atlanta and Seattle.

Once the spectrum can be fully utilized, Townsend said the key to eventually making wireless broadband a service as ubiquitous as the cell phone industry is getting customer equipment costs under $200 , the service itself under $50 a month and national coverage. Once those elements are in place, successful retail distribution deals can be made for the much hyped “plug-and-play” equipment envisioned by the industry.

Plug-and-play technology offers customers the advantage of avoiding the software installments that accompany cable and DSL broadband. According to NextNet Wireless, one of the country’s largest non-line-of-sight (NLOS) plug-and-play broadband wireless access systems, claims consumers can be online within 15 minutes of taking the modem out of the box.

Last summer, cellular pioneer Craig McCaw invested in NextNet and is using its equipment as part of McCaw’s ambitious plan to launch a wireless plug-and-play broadband service to challenge the dominant cable and DSL companies.

NextNet CEO Kelnhofer says customers must be offered easy installation and use, not only for consumer convenience but also to reduce costs to the provider.

“It [wireless broadband] needs reliability, simplicity and no truck rolls,” Kelnhofer said. “Through cross-roaming agreements, we want you to be able to take a device with you wherever you go and have a broadband connection.”

NextNet’s NLOS system is an IP-based wireless network platform that supports delivery of IP-compatible broadband applications, including both voice and data services such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), video streaming and conferencing.

Kelnhofer also agrees with Townsend that the future of wireless broadband rests in licensed spectrum use.

“We are focused on licensed spectrum only,” Kelnhofer said. “If you are really going to deliver carrier-class service, licensed spectrum is the only way to go.”

NextNet technology has been commercially deployed for over two years and is installed in 20 markets around the world, including Mexico, Canada, the U.S., Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

In addition to the deal with McCaw, NextNet announced last month it was launching broadband wireless service in conjunction with three U.S. regional Internet service provider partners in Ohio, Michigan and Nebraska. One of the company’s new partners, SpeedNet, is Michigan’s largest FCC-licensed, high-speed ISPs with spectrum covering 500,000 households.

Kelnhofer said wireless broadband is “finally poised to make a real change on the fabric of society.”

Or, as Powell, preaching to the choir two floors above him, said, “Products that just a few years ago no one had heard about are now working their way into commercial, deployable systems. We’ve come a long way and we’ve only just begun.”

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