BOSTON Bolstered by hints that the Federal Communications Commission is unlikely to take away their spectrum, developers at a packed industry conference this past week said fixed broadband wireless systems are now primed for major deployment.
While the telecom downturn has definitely had its effects, the Wireless Communications Association (WCA) International show here was rife with innovative solutions for fixed broadband wireless access (FBWA). They included a mesh network from Radiant Networks Inc., wireless LAN and FBWA combination boxes, and even a programmable communications processor technology from nBand Communications Inc.
"Fixed wireless has the potential to fundamentally interrupt the communications market especially as next-generation technologies start to emerge," said Len Lauer, president of Sprint's global-markets group. Lauer sees the relatively low cost of fixed wireless deployment as the cure for the digital divide that keeps the Internet out of reach for some households.
Indeed, many attending the WCA show said that despite the telecom industry slowdown, fixed broadband wireless access is finally on the threshold of becoming a viable alternative to cable, digital subscriber lines and even, in some cases, fiber. AT&T, WorldCom and Sprint told of exponentially growing FBWA rollouts, while equipment suppliers such as ADC Telecommunications, Hybrid Networks and Vyyo pumped the success of their first-generation systems.
"We won the contracts for four out of 10 of WorldCom's intended market rollouts this year," said Malik Audeh, director of wireless systems at Hybrid Networks. "Carriers are realizing that second-generation technologies just don't work yet, and they need to get up and running now with systems that are proven in the field."
A record 2,500 attendees at the WCA event breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kathleen Abernathy, a newly elected commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, declared that she would be "extremely hesitant" to take away spectrum allotted to FBWA and give it to developers of third-generation (3G) wireless networks.
In the eyes of many, Abernathy's remarks effectively ended months of speculation about whether or not licensees of spectrum in the 2.5-GHz multichannel, multipoint distribution service (MMDS) band would actually be able to continue deploying their systems. Sprint and WorldCom alone have spent upwards of $5 billion to date on spectrum in various markets, before even beginning their respective rollouts.
Nevertheless, the FCC continues to struggle in its efforts to identify wireless spectrum for 3G. In a June 26 letter to Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, FCC chairman Michael Powell said the agency would miss a July 31 deadline to launch a spectrum review. The review is a key step in identifying spectrum for 3G services.
Time for consideration
"The entire federal government faces a challenging set of issues in addressing how best to make available sufficient U.S. spectrum for advanced wireless services," Powell said. "I believe that the public interest would be best served by additional time for informed consideration, even if this results in some delay in reaching allocation decisions."
The threat to take away spectrum owned by MMDS operators stemmed from former President Clinton's statement late last year that either MMDS operators at 2.5 GHz or the Department of Defense at 1.7 GHz would have to move to make way for 3G developers. "Now it looks like the DOD will be doing the moving," said Hybrid Networks' Audeh.
Sprint's Lauer used the Sprint PCS example of operation in the 1.9-GHz band to show why there was no need for the FCC to kick operators out of the MMDS band. "We're offering 3G services already at 1.9 GHz," he said, referring to Sprint's planned rollout of its cdma2000 1xRTT service over the coming year.
During an enthusiastically delivered luncheon keynote address on Tuesday (June 26), Lauer predicted that the number of FBWA subscribers would grow from under 100,000 today to more than 5 million by 2005. Market watchers at Strategis Group forecast that U.S. FBWA service revenues will reach $6.3 billion by 2005, representing a compound annual growth rate of almost 60 percent.
As a task force that was set up last year began the process of deciding who would have to move off current spectrum, operators such as WorldCom and Sprint delayed their rollout plans, thereby giving companies operating in the license-exempt bans at 2.4 and 5.8 GHz ample opportunity to come to market.
However, Arturas Medesis, radio communications expert at the European Communications Office, dismissed unlicensed bands as "not a serious market they're cheap solutions" with a susceptibility to interference, he said.
"No, we're not a final solution, that's true, but we are a very good midterm solution," countered Franchesca Walker, vice president of marketing at Adaptive Broadband, a leading provider of equipment in the unlicensed bands. "And the large uptake we're seeing in Asian markets in particular proves that." With systems already deployed in China and India, Adaptive is seeing a lot of interest from Korea and Hong Kong, Walker said.
Amid the general sense of buoyancy, the financial woes of companies such as Winstar, XO, ART and Teligent cast a bit of a pall over the conference, as vendors reported that a lack of capital funding in the FBWA industry is slowing development of newer technologies needed to address the technical hurdles facing the wireless industry. Lack of capital has also undermined the viability of upstarts with fresh ideas, observers said.
"Look around the show floor at many of these smaller ventures," said Arnon Kohavi, senior vice president of strategic relations at Vyyo. "I guarantee you, half of them won't be around next year."
Even established companies such as ADC aren't immune, despite declarations to the contrary. Sources within the company confirmed for EE Times rampant rumors that ADC was in the process of selling off its fixed-wireless division "to a major industry player." That deal, according to sources, is scheduled to be signed in the next week and will allow ADC to focus more on Internet Protocol-over-cable.
The apparent sale notwithstanding, ADC demonstrated its Axity MMDS system at the WCA show. The system connected to WorldCom's FBWA local Boston site, which is currently undergoing trials.
Elsewhere at WCA, nBand showed off a new chip architecture it claims will add flexibility and future-proof broadband access products by allowing more than one protocol to be processed at any one time on a single chip. The nFlex architecture will also make it easy to upgrade that chip as protocols change, said Pete Foley, president and chief executive officer of nBand.
Though sounding suspiciously like a regular DSP with hardware accelerators, the nFlex architecture is actually based on a proprietary RISC matrix processor with a vector coprocessor, embedded memory and hardware accelerators all on a single chip.
"Being RISC-based makes it easy to program and get product to market," said Foley. "We've done a complete 802.11a WLAN wireless LAN protocol-processing solution in 7,000 lines of code and in only four months." Programming is done in Matlab.
The chip fits right in with the recent trend toward Internet access devices (IADs) that use FBWA as the access method and some form of wireless LAN technology (typically 802.11b for now, but moving to 802.11a) for distribution within the facility.
"Our processor can handle both protocols simultaneously, eliminating the need for multiple processors in IADs, and therefore lowering overall cost and shrinking their size," said Foley.
Another option is FBWA to multitenant units with DSL as the distribution method. Again, the nFlex processor can handle both protocols, nBand said.
The company used the show to promote the first chip to be based on the architecture, the n14101, as well as the fact that Nokia has recently become a corporate investor.
The n14101 device is available now in an 0.18-micron Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. process, moving next year to 0.13 micron, the company said.
The Strategis Group took the news of Nokia's investment in nBand as an indicator of how OEMs are supporting innovative technologies to drive the broadband access market. The research firm predicts that in Europe, FBWA will take in $8.6 billion in annual revenues by 2006. It projects a five-year total of more than $17 billion in service revenues in the United States.
Sprint's Lauer, meanwhile, sees that company's FBWA customer base rising from 30,000 at the end of the first quarter to over 100,000 by year's end.
Lauer said the technology is a boon to interexchange carriers frustrated in their attempts to lease local lines from regional Bell operating companies. "Fixed wireless can leap over the RBOC and get right to the customer," he said.
Radiant Networks, meanwhile, said it plans to install its mesh network in Virginia and surrounding states through TradeWinds Network Services. Radiant's network operates in the local multipoint distribution service (LMDS) band at 26 GHz and operates by using interconnected nodes instead of the typical basestation approach.
The system promises to lower the cost of entry to the market and to help service providers realize a quicker return, said Shoomon Perry, a marketing analyst at Radiant. Each node costs $9,000 and can operate at typical rates of 2 to 5 Mbits/second, bursting to 25 Mbits/s per user.
"To date, operators such as Winstar have been throwing money at the deployment stage hoping for customers later. They had money to gamble when venture capital was loose," said Perry. But he pointed to Winstar's troubles as evidence that this model doesn't work. "Our system lets you get up and running now and easily add nodes as required," he said.
A key aspect of the Radiant technology is the software needed to coordinate all the nodes. This must be done from a single, centralized source, said Perry, otherwise the system would descend into chaos. The software algorithms used represent the company's core intellectual property.
Harris Corp. also announced at the WCA show the launch of its ClearBurst MB network at 3.5 and 10.5 GHz.
Additional reporting by George Leopold.