Reaching for the W-Band

'Personal broadband' frequencies would let enterprises operate their own wireless links.

Did you ever wish you could have a spectrum license of your own so you could bypass ISPs and link directly to the Internets fiber backbone? The idea is more than just a daydream; the government is considering whether to open up new frequencies that are conducive to high-speed broadband links and allow enterprises and carriers alike to apply for licenses.

The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing suggestions on how to license the upper-millimeter wave band, also known as the W-band, at 71GHz to 76GHz, 81GHz to 86GHz and 92GHz to 95GHz. Industry proponents see the frequencies as a means of unclogging the "last mile" bottleneck that hampers broadband usage. By allowing enterprises to operate their own wireless links in the frequencies at the speed of fiber-optic cable, the cost of bandwidth would fall and its capabilities would rise, they say.

Some are calling the technology "personal broadband" and envision it as empowering businesses to create their own alternative paths to the Internet, establish faster connections at lower cost and enable broadband on demand.

"If you go to mainstream carriers, theyre going to suggest you buy three 7-by-24-by-365 circuits to meet your occasional needs," said Richard Burkhart, CEO of BGI Inc., in Chicago. "The position that a lot of companies are in is that theyre at the mercy of the [Regional Bell Operating Companies]."

BGI, its affiliate i-Fi LLC and a host of other private companies are trying to persuade the FCC to set up a licensing system for the W-band that is affordable to enterprises. Over the past decade, the commission has licensed the lions share of commercial spectrum on a geographic basis to large service providers that bid enormous sums for it at auction. While there appears to be no support for it in the private sector, the commission proposed auctioning the W-band, arguing that it would be too difficult to administer any other way.

Generally, however, the commission is trying to impose fewer restrictions on the use of spectrum. "Were trying to get away from where were telling users what they can do on what spectrum," said Lauren Kravetz Patrich, FCC spokeswoman, in Washington.

W-band proponents argue that the frequencies should be available to a larger pool of users at more affordable rates under what is known as site-by-site licensing. Under that scenario, communications functions that are currently impeded by bandwidth restrictions, such as videoconferencing, would flourish, BGIs Burkhart said. "Personal broadband is a new category that allows you to bring in bandwidth and do something in your business you previously werent able to do," he said. "Were suggesting that individual fidelity is what its all about."

In addition, some industry proponents envision site-by-site licensing as a way to ensure the most efficient use of the spectrum by allowing enterprises to sell the bandwidth they dont use. Service providers generally do not let customers resell unused bandwidth, so much of it is often left unoccupied. Advocates of the W-band also cite security benefits. By allowing enterprises control over their broadband links, the government would promote safer networks with alternative paths, supporters say. Whats more, it is faster to deploy wireless connectivity than to install wires, making the frequencies conducive to expanding operations and disaster recovery processes, they say.

The idea of opening up the 71GHz-to-76GHz and 81GHz-to-86GHz bands originated with Loea Communications Corp., a wireless technology developer in Lihue, Hawaii. Loea is promoting the bands for local-area networking, a means of bypassing central telephone offices and storage area networking. If the FCC adopts its proposal, Loea said it will be able to provide carrier-grade wireless availability.

Several industry players are trying to persuade the FCC to write rules that will make it easy for enterprises to acquire a license in the band. Cisco Systems Inc. suggested that a company should be able to enter a Web site, enter the coordinates it wants and determine that it is available. Cisco estimates that it could cost a business as little as $10 per foot to establish the wireless equivalent of a fiber connection that costs $110 per foot.

"The band supports more use of broadband, which is a No. 1 policy priority," said John Ernhardt, Cisco spokesman, in San Jose, Calif. "This spectrum would allow more gigabit speeds."

Cisco is also appealing to the FCCs sense of economy, saying commercial enterprises generally may be better off financially today than struggling telecommunications carriers. The telecom equipment manufacturer is urging the FCC to expand its vision and consider not just how technologies and policies affect service providers but also how they can directly affect enterprises in all industries.

Another option at the FCCs disposal is to let anyone use the W-band on an unlicensed basis. However, most industry proponents want some regulation, arguing that it will make the bands more reliable. According to Cisco, the equipment is unlikely to resemble typical unlicensed consumer devices such as cordless phones or baby monitors. Instead, it will likely require professional installation and rights to locate an antenna on a tower, officials said.