March 17, 2003

I Want My Broadband Telecom Competition!

I look out my bedroom window to the northeast. There, a third of a mile away, on top the hill, stands a forest of wireless antennas. Why, oh why, is my only choice for broadband the cable modem? Why, oh why, is no one interested in selling me wireless broadband?


Broadband competition might still be possible: When anyone asks how to find innovation in technology today, I answer, ``Look where you don't find monopoly control or crushing regulation.'' One such place is in wireless communications, specifically in the open-to-all part of the airwaves, and lately I'm seeing some things that give me hope for the broadband future America so desperately needs to create. Regulatory missteps and marketplace misbehavior are creating a dangerous duopoly in the ``last mile'' of data access to our homes and small businesses. Unless wireless can compete, the regional telephone and cable monopolies will control communications well into the 21st century. I'm beginning to think that wireless can compete, because of enormous recent innovation in what's called the ``unlicensed spectrum.'' That's the part of the airwaves not controlled by government or specific industries and companies. The rise of the 802.11 ``Wi-Fi'' wireless standard, from a tiny blip to a more and more essential part of everyday communications, shows how progress thrives in a truly open marketplace. But Wi-Fi isn't the only interesting story. Tom Freeburg and his colleagues at Canopy Wireless Broadband Products, a unit of electronics giant Motorola, are telling one of the most intriguing stories of all. They've come up with a system that could bypass, at least for the near term, the wire-line duopoly in urban and suburban areas. The technology may also turn out to be nearly ideal for deployment in rural areas. The radio-based Canopy system uses unlicensed spectrum, so no one has to ask for regulatory approval. The price is low enough -- a company or Internet service provider can serve hundreds of customers for about $20,000 in start-up equipment costs -- and it looks easy to deploy. Best of all, it offers excellent data-transfer rates, in the range of 6 to 7 megabits a second, which is much faster than the cable and phone-based alternatives today, though ISPs offering Canopy-based services commonly ratchet down individual customers' capacity to some extent. A Canopy ``access point'' -- the base station serving end users -- has six radios, each of which covers 60 degrees of a circle, so the six can radiate and receive signals in all directions. It's sensitive to barriers such as groves of trees and most modern buildings, especially as the range -- which can be as far as 10 miles from the access point -- increases. An Internet service provider can set up as many access points as needed to serve an area if the population density and customer demand are too high for one access point to serve everyone. Motorola is creating an international distribution network for Canopy, and says there are ``tens of thousands'' of these radios in use around the United States so far, and several hundred customers that have set up at least one access point. One of Motorola's customers is start-up Neopolitan Networks in Palo Alto. The company sells extremely high-speed data connections and associated services. It has business customers in south Florida and Silicon Valley, including the Peninsula, San Jose and the East Bay, and uses Canopy for some installations. Frank R. Robles, Neopolitan's founder and chief executive, says the Canopy system offers superior technical quality -- including customer radios that are much lighter than competitive models -- and flexibility in configuration. The bottom line, he says, is the ability to offer a serious alternative to the dominant data carriers. Neopolitan plans to offer the service to residential customers, first in multi-dwelling buildings such as high-rise apartments and condominiums, and later single-family homes. Robles says the price will be about $50 a month, but for that money the customer will get a faster, more reliable connection -- in both directions -- than cable or DSL service now offers. Making the connection fast in both directions, uploading and downloading, is essential for things like Net-based video conferencing, among other things.

Posted by DeLong at March 17, 2003 07:52 AM | TrackBack

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