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Fixed Wireless Struggles for Success

Fixed microwave wireless systems have been around for a long time. In
the BF days -- that's before fiber -- microwave radios represented the
most cost-effective physical medium for delivering information over long
distances. Towers were constructed in suburban and rural areas, carrying
analog voice calls over the wireless equivalent of T1 lines. Then, in
the 1980s, a company called Microwave Bypass Systems teamed up with some
hospitals and universities in the Boston area to deliver higher speed
Ethernet traffic over the airwaves. In those early days of the Internet,
that was quite a feat.

Early fixed-wireless systems usually ran over licensed spectrum,
requiring organizations to navigate FCC bureaucracy. The majority of
today's most popular systems eschew FCC licensing in favor of unlicensed
frequencies, usually in the 2.4-GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific and
Medical) or 5-GHz UNII (Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure)
bands. The end result has been a free-for-all of sorts. WISPs (Wireless
Internet Service Providers) have capitalized on low-cost wireless
chipsets and related electronics to deliver last-mile access solutions
at prices that substantially undercut traditional wireline carriers.

This all works amazingly well in moderately populated areas that are
often underserved by traditional providers. But for large metropolitan
areas, it's become cause for concern. Without coordination, it's just
too easy for your link to step all over mine, diminishing performance
or, in the worst case, taking it out altogether.

It's this state of affairs that has the industry looking in multiple
directions for solutions. While it's difficult to imagine the FCC
playing a proactive role in eliminating the possibility of interference
-- after all, that's the beauty of unlicensed bands -- it is conceivable
that governmental entities could emerge to both encourage responsible
use and resolve disputes. Many governmental entities, ranging from water
authorities to sewage districts, have been created to address a specific
problem. But with government action comes more regulation, higher prices
for consumers and greater obstacles to market penetration.

The alternative is a form of voluntary corporate regulation instigated
by the companies whose livelihood is at stake. California is now
employing just such a strategy, having established two new BANC
(Broadband Access Network Coordination) groups that serve Los Angeles
and San Diego, two of the densest broadband wireless markets. Instigated
by NextWeb, which bills itself as the nation's largest fixed-wireless
Internet service provider, the BANCs are loosely formed regulatory
bodies that focus on proactive strategies for diminishing the likelihood
of interference. It's an interesting approach that will probably buy the
industry some time. But it's unlikely it will be enough to guard against

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