The demise, bankruptcy or refinancing of such fixed broadband wireless access (FBWA) favorites as Advanced Radio Tele-communications (ART), Winstar-and more recently Teligent-has rocked the FBWA industry over the last few months. With the ensuing negative publicity painting all FBWA offerings with the same burning brush, it was inevitable that the industry as a whole would suffer. But as AT&T's highly successful Angel project has now proven, not all FBWA technologies are alike. There are many success stories in this arena-but only if you know where to look.
What Teligent, Winstar and ART had in common was that their business model was based on operation at 26 GHz and above, commonly called the local multipoint distribution service (LMDS) band. Working a point-to-point distribution service, those businesses faced many problems, not the least of which were high equipment costs and line-of-sight issues. "In addition," according to Dave Gibbons, chief technical officer of AT&T's fixed wireless service division (Redmond, Wash.), "those operators faced intense competition from incumbent telephone and data service suppliers."
AT&T chose to operate at below 11 GHz. Here, line-of-sight issues are mitigated, and customer-premise equipment (CPE) and basestation equipment costs are lower. Also, by operating on a point-to-multipoint basis, the company can plant a single basestation to target up to 95 percent of all potential subscribers in a given area, thereby achieving maximum return on investment.
The goal, Gibbons pointed out, is to establish a point of presence in a given area to compete with digital subscriber line and cable alternatives-and to a lesser extent satellite. "We're addressing residential customers where there's no competition at all, as it's still an enormous monopoly and so there's a good market," he said.
|Dave Gibbons, CTO of AT&T's fixed wireless operations, has
found that surviving in the wireless services business depends on much more than just high bandwidth. The key
is offering a wide variety of useful services to the customer. |
The sub-11-GHz range has various frequency bands within it, the most well known being multichannel, multipoint distribution service (MMDS), the various personal communications services (PCS), wireless communications services (WCS), wireless local loop and the Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) band-to mention a few. Because of the ability of companies operating in those bands to establish a single point of presence to feed multiple subscribers, many companies have vied for a slice of the pie.
Companies such as Hybrid Networks (San Jose, Calif.) have been supplying carriers such as Sprint in the United States and Wireless World in the Virgin Islands. However, despite being a mainstay of the industry, the company reported a first-quarter net loss of $6.3 million on revenues of $5.1 million.
Project managers at several companies working below 11 GHz discuss their work as part of this week's focus on wireless networks, including Adaptive Broadband in the U-NII band, Aperto Networks and Malibu Networks.
And, above 11 GHz, contributor Ensemble Communications Inc. (San Diego) has taken a somewhat different approach to the likes of Teligent and Winstar by operating on a point-to-multipoint basis at 26 GHz. That way the company takes advantage of the higher data rates possible, while at the same time reaching broad coverage. It must be noted, however, that CPE costs are still relatively high, so Ensemble's main customer base comprises home/small offices and small enterprises.
But what distinguishes AT&T's Angel project from all its peers is the complete end-to-end solution it provides. From the residential customers' own flavor of home networking-though it currently only supports Home-PNA-through to four lines of toll-quality telephone lines, right up to 1-Mbit/second data download speeds, the Angel project is one of the few to offer complete one-stop shopping -with the infrastructure to support it.
The project began in 1995 when AT&T Wireless committed itself to providing telephone service and broadband data to residential consumers. "There's a limit as to how much people will pay for bits per second, so there's an opportunity that's much greater than that-and our bundling of telecom features is a demonstration of that," said Gibbons.
Because of its expertise in cellular, it decided to leverage this by opting for a wireless solution for the last mile. AT&T chose to operate with both a 1.9-GHz PCS radio and a WCS 2.3-GHz radio. "We chose that for the propagation features of that band, as well as the availability of spectrum," said Gibbons. The actual amount of spectrum the company has depends on the market, but WCS comprises primarily 15 MHz in two bands that are separated.
Now, six years later, AT&T Wireless Digital Broadband offers service in seven cities in the United States. And the number is growing. "While our city selection criteria principally revolve around spectrum availability and whether or not we'd be competing with our own cable services, we're still expecting to expand from 15,000 subscribers at the end of Q1 this year, to 100,000 by year's end," said Gibbons.
Looking forward, Gibbons sees some of the major challenges FBWA faces not being technological, but a combination of perception and regulation. "We've mastered the technology now," he said. "The biggest issue is the constant placement of all FBWA methods under a single umbrella - there are vast differences between what we're doing and what companies at LMDS are doing." Other issues relate to the placement of basestations in conflict with tightly regulated zoning laws, spectrum availability and a standard.