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Can't get DSL?
Go Wireless!

Shane Mitchell is the President of 2Fast Communications, Inc., operating WireWeb Internet and Wireless, a broadband Internet and communications provider. He has been in the computer and Internet industry for 16 years.

The need for high speed Internet access often exceeds available technology in many locations and applications. While many businesses and individual users have turned to DSL and cable modem strategies to address their needs, many cannot utilize these broadband solutions for a variety of reasons. Wireless distribution of broadband services can sometimes fill the void between T-1 delivery and plain old dialup access.

While the holy grail of wireless distribution continues to be the delivery of broadband in any weather and across all terrains and interference, technology currently limits us to two basic wireless alternatives; line of site radio frequencies, and satellite transmission and reception. Each offers strengths and weaknesses that require the user to decide which alternative gives the best overall result for their specific applications. For commercial applications, point-to-point line of sight radio frequency transmission of packets offers speeds of up to 11Mbps in single radio configurations, and as much as 33Mbps with bonded radio stacking schemes. This can be quite handy for a variety of uses: Wide-Area Networks between multiple office locations; Internet access in areas where DSL is not available and T-1 or greater local loop connections are cost-prohibitive; and a combination of both, eliminating the need for multiple Internet backbone access.

This technology requires line of sight transmission of radio frequencies, often in the unlicenced ranges of 2.4 GHz and higher. Generally speed of the traffic is greatest at 5 miles or less, point-to-point, and degrades as the distance increases. The use of amplifiers and multiple repeating radios stationed in a ďcellularĒ manner can improve overall performance by decreasing the logical distance between each location. A common question asked is whether or not meteorological changes such as rain, wind, or snow affect performance. The simple answer is that they generally do not, particularly with regard to rain, although ice and snow can have some effect. That is not a problem in the San Antonio area, however. Wind is not an issue as long as the antennae are securely fastened. I have heard, however, that buzzards and other birds can sometimes perch or even nest on antennae, requiring the addition of fencing or other deterring utilities. 

The cost of installation ranges from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the manufacturer and desired performance results. The basic requirements for this technology are a radio at each waypoint, including the termination points of the network, and an antenna. The user will always have a directional antenna pointed at either the other endpoint, or a repeating radio in between. As an Internet Service Provider (ISP), we deploy an omni-directional antenna at our POP and use directional antennae on each customerís facility, either pointing at our antenna, or at a repeating station, which in turn routes back to our POP.

The cost of the equipment can be substantial, but it is not always the case. Our installations generally cost less than $1000 to start, but I have seen some run as high as $3000. While this is considerable, when you take into account that T-1 local loop charges from the Telcoís average over $300 per month, it takes less than a year to recoup the investment. Additionally, there is no 1544k limitation on this bandwidth. You can run your wide area network at speeds that approach your local area network traffic. If you are accessing an Internet backbone connection, remember that although you are running up to 11 Mbps to the backbone itself, it is very likely that your backbone access will be throttled back to a more reasonable speed in the 1544k range, unless you pay for the additional bandwidth.

This technology is appealing to businesses which require committed bandwidth for T-1 type Internet access, but the startup cost and the need for the ISP to charge for Internet backbone consumption make it too expensive for the average home user. Additionally, there are businesses that cannot obtain this service because they cannot get line of sight radio access because of obstruction of view by other buildings, hills, or even interference from other radio transmissions in the 2.4 Ė5.8 GHz range. A more affordable, albeit slower solution, can be obtained via satellite.

At the present time, there are two mass-market distributors of satellite broadband access; Starband and DirectPC. Additionally there are other satellite ISPís that offer more performance, but at a higher cost. Starband and DirectPC offer download speeds in the 400-500k range (similar to ADSL) and upload speeds of up to 150k. In reality, the upload speeds probably are more in the 50-70k range due to the complexity with which the satellite must receive and process each incoming packet from thousands of locations simultaneously from more than 22,000 miles below. This is no small feat and it is not perfected yet. 

The latency from the processing of these packets is substantial, with each transponder receiving thousands of incoming packets per second. Downstream traffic is done by sending all packets in one broadcast stream, with the userís equipment siphoning off their own packets, much the same as an Ethernet hub broadcasts all traffic to all ports and requires that the userís Ethernet card retrieves the packets destined for itsí MAC address. 

Startup costs are currently in the $500-$700 range, with monthly access charges in the $60-80 area. Look for the startup costs and monthly fees for this service to drop as more competition and economies of scale kick in. This technology is not mature at this time. It is an acceptable solution in rural areas where other broadband will not appear for the foreseeable future, or in neighborhoods where DSL and cable modem have not yet arrived. I also have met a number of people that use it because they simply refuse to give another dime to Time Warner or Southwestern Bell. 

As I mentioned before, there are niche-oriented satellite ISPís that offer higher performance satellite Internet access, but at a higher cost. One company, SurfFree, in Dallas, touts download speeds of up to 1000k and upload speeds of 150k at a cost of $139 per month plus $10 per month per workstation/PC in the customerís network. Additional download speed can be gained from multiplexing receivers at the user end. 

While DSL continues to be the most popular form of broadband Internet access, there have been a number of business failures of DSL carriers such as Jato, Connect South, and Vectris. This has caused more than one MIS administrator to look elsewhere for broadband solutions to avoid the sudden loss of Internet access for their users due to the abrupt departure of their provider. Even DSL powerhouses such as Covad and Northpoint have lost millions providing DSL circuits with no light at the end of the tunnel and cannot promise their continued existence without suffering the smirks of those who know better. Wireless Internet access can provide a reliable, stable, and consistent alternative for many broadband applications, as well as the only choice for those who require performance where DSL and cable modems do not exist.

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Alamo PC Organization, Inc.
San Antonio, TX USA