Wireless Data at Lower Cost

 
 
By Carmen Nobel  |  Posted 2001-10-29
 
 
 

As wireless carriers face persistent challenges in rolling out next-generation networks, several vendors are trying to woo them with alternatives to make such services less expensive for customers.

Lucent Technologies Inc. spinoff Flarion Technologies Inc. is trying to change the future of wireless networks with its flash-OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) technology, which runs packet data over IP.

The Bedminster, N.J., company this week will announce $45 million in funding from several investors, including telecommunications equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc.

National trials will start later in the fall, officials said, though they would not say which carriers would be involved.

Flarion, which was launched last year, banks mainly on the notion that customers wont want to pay as much for third-generation, or 3G, wireless data services as they do for voice, something carriers havent accounted for, the officials said.

"There are a few reasons that our technology enables things that 3G doesnt," said Rajiv Laroia, founder and chief technology officer of Flarion, who previously worked for Lucents Bell Labs division. "The [carriers] didnt understand data. Technologies that were picked to do voice were maybe not the best ones for data. Weve been designing data systems from the ground up."

Flash-OFDM is a wide-band, spread-spectrum technology that allows multiple users to communicate within the same cell without interference. Officials said that flash-OFDM will require less spectrum than any of the proposed 3G networks—about 1.25MHz on CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Flash-OFDM is designed to run on the spectrum bands ranging from 700MHz to 3.5GHz, which generally covers those bands set aside for 3G.

The technology will enable carriers to offer comprehensive services at a fixed price without having to worry about system overload, officials said.

"Well comply with the 40-40 rule," said Alan Kuritsky, vice president of marketing at Flarion. "If the service is priced too high, users wont use it. End users will pay $40 for an all-you-can-eat service. At the same time, the network operator is enabled to make a 40 percent gross market profit."

"Operators really are not sure how to offer the data services and how to charge for them," Laroia said. "We let them offer them in a manner thats appealing to users. Traditional systems do not allow them to offer services like this because carriers are afraid of kids who download MP3 files and bring the network to its knees."

Flarions system consists of several products that support the proprietary interface. These include its RadioRouter base stations that plug into third-party routers, application-specific integrated circuits, and modem cards that plug into a variety of laptops and personal digital assistants.

Company officials said handset manufacturers have shown interest in supporting the technology. Advocates for carriers seem interested but point out that with companies trying to adhere to myriad standards, its tough to make the case for any new technology.

"I think Flarion has an excellent technical team, but its always a challenge to implement a proprietary technology in a world based on standards," said Perry LaForge, president of the CDMA Developers Group, in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Flarion officials acknowledged that most wireless carriers have their next-generation networks mapped out already. And while flash-OFDM supports voice, "were not positioning this as a technology to replace voice systems," Laroia said, but rather to work in conjunction with 3G networks so carriers offer one service based on voice and one based on flash-OFDM for data.

Flarion is not the only company banking on the idea that wireless carriers will have to offer dual services for voice and data simply because customers have gotten used to paying individually for voice calls but receiving Internet access for a fixed monthly cost.

Nextel Communications Inc. is testing equipment from RadioFrame Networks Inc., which focuses on indoor wireless networks but has various solutions that converge wireless voice and wireless data points. RadioFrame officials, in Redmond, Wash., said the technology may be used for WLAN (wireless LAN)/wireless WAN convergence soon.

WLANs are a much less expensive way to access the Internet wirelessly than are cellular networks. This is not a huge threat to carriers yet because services that offer WLAN access exist mainly in airports and coffee shops right now. But more and more device manufacturers are starting to support 802.11b (WiFi) WLAN technology in their products. Symbol Technologies Inc. has a phone that supports 802.11b now.

And Palm Inc. CEO Carl Yankowski said at a conference in Camden, Maine, last week that the company plans to add native support for 802.11b in upcoming devices.

WLAN hardware manufacturers have been discussing with carriers the possibility of offering dual accounts that include both wide-area and WLAN services, so customers can switch back and forth.

"I was talking to [Scandinavian carrier] Telia [AB] a while back," said Jim Lansford, vice president of business development at Mobilian Corp., in Portland, Ore. "Theyre looking at deploying wireless LAN services."

Mobilian, which currently makes radios that support Bluetooth and 802.11b, has plans for a radio that supports 802.11b and one of the 3G networks.

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