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Where Have You Been All My Life?

Fixed-access wireless has flown under the radar for several years while its flashy sibling, mobile wireless, has basked in the media spotlight. It's understandable: Mobility is sexy. Mobility can make workers more productive. IT managers understand WLAN and 2.5G/3G mobile systems. But when it comes to the bottom line, many mobile wireless technologies are deployed as much for convenience as they are for ROI.

Conversely, fixed wireless services are confusing. Many veteran IT professionals were scared away years ago by the high costs and complex installation schemes associated with licensed microwave systems. However, today's most popular offerings operate in the unlicensed 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) bands or in one of the several 5-GHz UNII (Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure) bands. These systems are inexpensive and easy to deploy and maintain, and a growing cadre of wireless-capable systems integrators is available in most areas.

Another source of confusion relates to the distinction between point-to-point and multipoint fixed wireless services. Multipoint products hold great promise not only for linking multiple sites in a metropolitan enterprise but also as a long-term alternative for providing broadband Internet access to homes and businesses, offering credible local-loop competition to LECs (local exchange carriers). However, multipoint wireless systems are notoriously difficult to engineer, and the market has been hit hard during the past year with the high-visibility bankruptcies of Teligent, Winstar and Advanced Radio Telecom Corp., which played in the LMDS (local multipoint distribution service) market, and a decision by Sprint to freeze new installations of its consumer-oriented MMDS (multipoint multichannel distribution service) offerings. But don't jump to the conclusion that multipoint is dead! Second-generation technology, which addresses many early-system deficiencies, coupled with more rational business models, will likely lead to a re-emergence of the broadband wireless services market in 2003. You'll also see an increasing array of unlicensed multipoint wireless offerings targeted at private enterprise MAN (metropolitan area network) deployments.

In short, while multipoint wireless has considerable long-term appeal, point-to-point wireless solves real problems, right now. With systems available that span distances of 35 miles or more, and with performance for many products breaking the 100-Mbps barrier, there's considerable value. The sweet spot is a cost-effective 10-Mbps link that spans a mile or so. You'll get better performance than you can through T1 lines, and system reliability that approaches 99.999 percent.

When compared with WLANs, fixed wireless doesn't draw much attention from the analyst community, so it's difficult to determine precisely how large the market is. However, based on our interaction with vendors and network professionals, we know the market is growing significantly, particularly as relates to enterprise applications.

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