Voice and Data Go on the Air

U.S. carriers are mulling fixed wireless networks for a variety of services

For many years, telecommunications carriers have been talking about the promise of wireless technologies to deliver traditional services in addition to mobile telephony.

The talk has not translated into action in the United States, however, where most spectrum assigned for fixed wireless services still lies fallow. But thats all about to change.

Some of the largest carriers, including the major long-distance providers, are on the verge of accelerating deployment of wireless local loop networks to offer combinations of broadband services, including telephony, Internet access and video. Before summers end, carriers are expected to launch large-scale pilot programs using more than one of the fixed wireless bands.

Recognizing a confluence of marketplace, regulatory and technological developments that finally are creating a market for fixed wireless, vendors are preparing to roll out equipment. London-based Marconi plc., which launched an IP-based wireless local loop system for unlicensed frequencies this month, will make the same system available to licensed carriers at 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz by September.

"Carriers are looking for something that will compete head-to-head with DSL [digital subscriber line] or cable modems," said Steve Macke, Marconi vice president. Marconis WipLL system consists of a base station and easy-to-use customer equipment.

The notion of using wireless to compete with, or take the place of, traditional local wireline networks has taken root faster overseas. With the help of Nashua, N.H., equipment maker Spike Broadband Systems Inc., Sonofon, a joint venture of BellSouth International and Telenor, last month began to deploy in Denmark the largest fixed wireless system to date. The network will provide voice-over-IP, data and video services to 95 percent of the people in that country.

In the United States, carriers have been much more tentative about fixed wireless, and a fragmented licensing framework with multiple licensees in each band has made the country less favorable to manufacturers such as Spike.

A thorny U.S. regulatory environment is largely to blame for the slow implementation here. Spectrum was assigned in a patchwork fashion, and some allocations interfere with users in Mexico. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commissions quest for more frequencies for advanced mobile services—that is, third-generation wireless—has left some of the largest fixed wireless licensees—namely, MMDS (Multipoint Multichannel Distribution Service) licensees at 2.5GHz—the target of possible eviction from their bands.

The regulatory uncertainty is beginning to settle, however. Sprint Corp. and WorldCom Inc., which hold the lions share of the MMDS spectrum, are gaining ground in the effort to secure their frequencies. The carriers trade group, the Wireless Communications Association, last week formally asked the Bush administration to take the MMDS spectrum off the roster of potential 3G bands—illustrating that progress toward that end has been made behind the scenes.

AT&T Wireless, which holds fixed wireless licenses at 2.3GHz, has generated a lot of mystery but little substance around its Project Angel. According to sources, the Basking Ridge, N.J., company has made recent strides it will announce this summer.