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Feature Article
April 2004

Microwave Evolves Into Viable Broadband Internet Access


This article looks at the current state of the broadband industry with a focus on broadband wireless � the long-awaited �third pipe� (the first two �pipes� being telco copper phone lines and cable TV co-ax systems). Telco copper phone lines offer a ubiquitous presence, but they are owned � lock, stock and barrel � by monopolies that cannot easily deploy the latest technology and that charge a hefty fee for their access. Cable TV co-ax lines offer a competitive alternative, and are being upgraded to fiber (albeit at a slower rate in the current economy) but do not serve many homes nor most businesses. Fixed wireless has seen the failure of a number of high-profile licensed microwave attempts, including Winstar, Teligent, ART and Ricochet. So, we are still left with an unmet need � and a major opportunity � for a competitive alternative to deliver broadband Internet across the U.S.


Is there anything truly new and competitive for the industry? The answer is a resounding �Yes,� which comes, perhaps unexpectedly, from the most open and free part of the broadband industry � unlicensed fixed wireless. There are four parts to this exciting story. First of all, unlike the higher profile licensed microwave providers mentioned above, it is the unlicensed wireless broadband operators who have survived the recession. Some of these unlicensed operators are now evolving successfully from small local providers into major regional players, and there is renewed talk of consolidation plays. Second, regulators are enjoying the opportunity to increase deregulation and reduce their costs by embracing unlicensed operation to such an extent that the FCC has finalized a quiet, yet major deal with the DoD (Department of Defense) to release 225 MHz of valuable spectrum real-estate for unlicensed operation. Third, end users are gaining confidence in wireless service so that it is no longer as difficult to convince IT managers and CFOs to put their trust in an intangible medium like wireless. Finally, a hot new technology is developing to allow vendors to offer smart new radios to the unlicensed service providers, which may finally fulfill the long-unmet promise of interference-free interoperability.


When unlicensed operation was initially proposed by a government think-tank called the Mitre Corporation, the idea was to use military spread spectrum technology for US commercial applications. The U.S. military used spread spectrum to avoid detection and jamming of its transmissions from the enemy. Therefore, Mitre thought that this technology could be the solution to allow new commercial services to enter and operate in existing spectrum currently allocated to other services, on a secondary basis without causing or receiving any interference. Otherwise, it seemed there was no new spectrum available for new services. So, in 1989 the FCC set up special rules under Part 15.247 allowing shared operation on an unlicensed basis in the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5.8 GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) microwave bands and eventually manufacturers started developing initial equipment to take advantage of this windfall.

Some of the manufacturers started looking at different applications from those indoor devices originally intended by the FCC, and ended up developing products for use outdoors with megabit throughput capacities. Various service providers and enterprises deployed these products to replace telco 1.54 Mbps T1 lines with lower cost, wireless links under their own control. In order to provide the megabit throughput capacity within the FCC designated spectrum, the designers were forced to use far less spreading (hence process gain) in these products than used in the military applications. In turn, this meant that the wireless links weren�t all that resistant to interference and the initial interference-free promise of the hot new technology did not really materialize for this application, especially when compared to licensed microwave links. However, it did spark the desire by smaller service providers for unlicensed microwave products to provide broadband Internet access using wireless technology.


The next step in the story was the release of the UNII (unlicensed national information infrastructure) bands at 5 GHz by the FCC. UNII was in theory intended for broadband wireless Internet use, but this time it was co-opted for wireless LAN service using IEEE 802.11 standards. The key to understanding this is that (i) UNII rules deleted any spread spectrum requirement, and (ii) all LANs (including wireless LANs) operate behind enterprise/user firewalls and routers, thus still requiring an external Internet connection � usually DSL, T1 or cable! So, �round 2� by the FCC was still really a strikeout as far as broadband wireless Internet was concerned.

Now, this is where the technology story gets particularly interesting. In 2003, following a proposal by WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance), a group of wireless LAN vendors, the FCC opened negotiations with the DoD to expand unlicensed operations in the UNII bands by a further 225 MHz by sharing adjacent spectrum currently in occasional use for RADAR services. The FCC wanted to do this because they faced the twin tasks of trying to regulate valuable spectrum in a climate of tight government spending on non-defense budgets and also the growing demand from manufacturers for regulations allowing them to increase production and compete worldwide in the current economic recovery. By pursuing a spectrum policy of increased access to unlicensed spectrum, the FCC not only solved their internal limitations to regulate all of the frequency bands, but they also positioned themselves as responsive to the requests from the wireless LAN manufacturers, such as WECA.

The DoD stipulated certain tight, technical requirements, including DFS (dynamic frequency selection) and TPC (transmitter power control) before accepting the sharing proposal, because they knew that the previous UNII rules did not really solve the problem of interference-free operation. The DoD technical requirements are fairly easy to satisfy in the indoor wireless LAN environment, but far harder to meet in the outdoor environment used for broadband Internet access. Nevertheless, the FCC successfully pushed, not only the DoD, but also all the different national regulators at last year�s WRC-03 conference to approve the 5.25�5.35, 5.47�5.725, and 5.725�5.85 GHz microwave bands for unlicensed use, both indoors and outdoors on a global basis. This is clearly a win-win situation for the FCC. However, the FCC understands that indoor wireless LAN devices are not the solution to broadband Internet access. Nor are they blind to the claim that there is still more wireless broadband Internet access in Korea, for example, than there is in the United States!

The implication of all of this for the broadband industry is that fixed wireless service providers may well be able to count on more of the FCC�s support for unlicensed spectrum and regulation allowing them the freedom and flexibility to deploy and grow their outdoor networks in the future, unfettered by concerns that there will be insufficient spectrum resources or outdated technical requirements to compete successfully with the first two pipes � copper and co-ax.


Currently, the FCC has issued several notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) that investigate the opportunities for increased flexibility in deploying unlicensed equipment and the possibility of opening additional spectrum to a new unlicensed technology that they call �cognitive radio.� Cognitive radio is a term used to describe wireless technologies used to make radios aware of the RF (radio frequency) environment in which they operate. Cognitive radio technology includes algorithms, like DFS and TPC, which modify the frequency or power of operation to avoid any signals with which they might interfere. The opportunity now exists for vendors to develop next-gen products that must not only be able to meet the new DFS and TPC requirements and operate across the full new 5.25�5.825 GHz UNII band, but also uses these requirements to spur the creation of related algorithms that finally fulfill the long-unmet hype and promise of interference-free interoperability. True �cognitive radios� are software-defined wireless systems that achieve licensed microwave quality performance and reliability, while still operating outdoors in shared, unlicensed bands without causing any interference to others or being affected by other users of the shared spectrum.

Vendor groups like Wi-Max are developing true �wireless WAN� products for broadband Internet access, currently based on the IEEE 802.16 OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplex) standard. These designs will need to allow �always-on� connections and the reliable transport of demanding IP applications such as VoIP, together with very low packet loss and latency. IEEE 802.16 devices that incorporate cognitive radio technology will adapt not only to interference, but also to multi-path caused by obstructions and reflections on a real-time, per subscriber basis. Cognitive radio processing should improve building penetration, and increase range and overall coverage, while still being implemented in a low cost (<$300) CPE.


The final part of the equation defines a viable broadband wireless market consisting of successful service providers and enough consumers with the confidence in the technology to pay for it. There is no doubt that Wall Street is interested � but still not fully on board. There is also no doubt that the business segment has been far more lucrative than the residential segment, with much higher ARRPU (average recurring revenue per unit). However, it is not surprising that large-scale wireless broadband deployments have crashed on the twin rocks of crushing debt and dubious performance/reliability. As a result, most consumers still cannot expect to find a brand-name broadband wireless provider with coverage in their area yet.

One group of industry analysts, Parks Associates, recently issued a report projecting that unlicensed wireless services would be a $2 billion market in 2008, although much of that projection is assumed to be in the of late high-profile hot-spot segment, although it is currently unsuccessful and lacks revenue. In fact, there are still relatively few unlicensed fixed wireless broadband regional players, emerging in different parts of North America, who have achieved the critical mass necessary to support multi-city coverage area and still deliver reliable, high-quality services � despite using the current generation of hardware. These emerging regional providers have proven customer references who love the speed, flexibility, pricing, and service levels of broadband wireless. These players, and the technology, are poised for explosive growth as the economy rebounds, next generation equipment ships, and financial markets wake up to the potential of broadband.

Graham Barnes is CEO of NextWeb, Inc., a broadband network service provider delivering local access and advanced IP applications to corporate users over its next-generation fixed-wireless network. For more information, please visit www.nextweb.net.

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