Fixed wireless flying

Fixed wireless access services may not have lived up to the hype surrounding them in the late 1990s, but a new network launch, a network expansion and a fixed wireless acquisition all within the last two months of 2003 show that some people think the technology still has legs.

The most exciting fixed wireless news came in late November when Allstream Inc. and Microcell Telecommunications Inc. teamed up with private investment firm NR Communications to unveil plans for a $135 million fixed wireless venture.

Also in late November, Look Communications Inc. announced it had expanded broadband wireless services to Barrie, Aurora and Newmarket – all markets just north of Toronto. And in early December Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc. picked up MIPPS, a Markham, Ont.-based wireless Internet provider. There’s a good reason for the resurgent interest in fixed wireless Internet, said Iain Grant, a Montreal-based analyst at the Seaboard Group Inc.

Fixed wireless technology has evolved to the point where it doesn’t require a line of sight between a customer site and a local transmission tower. It also doesn’t require a fixed antenna at the customer site. Instead customers plug a CPE device into their computer and should be ready to go.

All of this means fewer costly telco technician visits to homes and businesses – something that plagued the first generation of fixed wireless Internet gear. Fixed wireless should benefit users, because it will create alternatives to cable, DSL and other high-speed telco technologies, Grant said. “More alternatives equals more competition,” he noted. “And more competition means better service and lower prices.”

Allstream and Microcell, who plan to launch their network in 2004, will set up in underserved markets, as well as compete with cable and telco companies, said Ron McKenzie, senior vice-president of strategic and corporate development with Allstream.

“In many cases this is an ideal offering in underserved areas, because we can be up and running very quickly,” he said. Once the transmission antennas are up and connected to Allstream’s landline network, users should be able to attach and configure their own customer premise gear, much like DSL users do now, McKenzie said.

Microcell will concentrate on serving consumers through the fixed wireless networks, while Allstream will focus on small and medium businesses, as well as enterprise branch offices, McKenzie explained. The companies also plan to wholesale the wireless services to other providers who might be interested in serving users directly.

Ted Chislett, president and COO of telecom provider Primus, is just as bullish about fixed wireless. “It’s attractive for us, because it’s an incremental investment business,” he said. “You don’t have to put a huge infrastructure in place. You have your investment in the customer premise equipment once you get a customer – not before.”

Chislett also likes the fact that unlike the wireline services that Primus resells from incumbent carriers, the company can engineer the fixed wireless links to their own specifications. In the past, wireless services had trouble winning over users, because the technology was relatively unknown. McKenzie believes that has changed.

“With the adoption of other wireless technologies and the acceptance of that as a business solution, the technology maturity is at a point where I think the market is ready to deploy these types of solutions,” he said. In many cases, said Chislett, larger companies will become familiar with fixed wireless by first using it as a backup connection.

“After they realize how reliable it is, they’ll be prepared to use it as a primary service,” he added.