The last mile

Good CIOs have gone mad trying to find cheap and effective last-mile connections between their corporate LANs and WANs. The pipes most companies have in place don’t offer the performance companies need to handle media-rich communications, and getting a new T-1 or fibre-optic cable put in the ground takes time and money usually lots of both. Wireless companies promise an alternative: high-speed service at a fraction of the cost.

The word wireless usually conjures images of cell phones, handheld computers or other personal communication devices rather than the information moving among them. The gadget mind-set, however, is a recent phenomenon that disregards the history and evolution of the wireless medium. For the first hundred years after Guglielmo Marconi’s early radio experiments in 1895, wireless simply meant a way to transmit electrical signals without (duh) a wire. Wireless first entered the mainstream telecommunications space in 1969 when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved a plan by MCI (Microwave Communication Inc.) to provide long-distance telephone service with wireless radio signals. And despite the nation’s obsession with gadgets and gizmos, the wireless-way-to-deliver-information continues to evolve.

To differentiate themselves from the mobile device world, companies using radio waves and stationary antennae have adopted the label “fixed wireless.” Because there is no need for mobility, these companies can use relatively large transmitters (compared with mobile devices that need to be portable) and consequently achieve transmission rates comparable to or higher than T-1 and DS-3. Since there is no cable to run, fixed wireless can be a significantly cheaper way to span the fabled last mile.

There are two different approaches to fixed wireless: point-to-point, which allows for large broadcasts between two points; and point-to-multipoint, which essentially creates a high-speed wireless network. Each is used in different situations and has distinct benefits and challenges.


Point-to-point is the basic form of fixed wireless: a small dish antenna transmits data over a distance to another dish. The range is limited by line-of-sight. Under ideal conditions, a signal can travel 30 miles, but if anything gets in the way, you don’t get your signal.

For the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), its 100Mbps antenna delivers data only a fifth of that distance, but it spans two countries. UTEP is a Gigapop (access point) for the Internet2 project, one of about 30 such points in the world that provide connections to the high-speed next-generation Internet being used by a handful of universities to share media-rich applications. Keeping with its close relationship with the University of Juarez just over the U.S.-Mexico border, UTEP decided to lay a dedicated Internet2 line to the Mexican school, which could, in turn, use existing landlines to share Internet2-based research with other schools in Mexico and Central America.

The cost and bureaucracy of laying high-speed cables in two different countries made fixed wireless the only feasible choice, says UTEP CIO Anna Hines. “There may be fibre in the ground, but not the type of bandwidth that is required [for Internet2],” she says. “This is a totally different type of backbone.”

In corporate settings, point-to-point is more commonly used to extend a LAN from one building to another. Banner Healthcare, Caterpillar Inc. and Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. among countless others all use point-to-point fixed wireless in this capacity to one degree or another. Fargo, N.D.-based Banner Healthcare, for example, moved 110 Greeley, Colo.-based employees to an offsite building two miles away. To connect them to the main system they could have spent about US$34,000 annually on a 45Mbps DS-3 line (assuming Qwest Communications International Inc. approved the construction). That didn’t measure up well against a US$37,000 onetime charge for a 100Mbps fixed wireless connection. The DS-3 line would also have taken as long as 18 months to install, whereas the wireless system was up and running within 30 days. “Going to fixed wireless removes us from the mercy of third-party carriers and gives us control,” says Banner CIO Paul Panico.


The fixed wireless cases above illustrate what Gartner Inc. Analyst Phil Redman sees as the overall adoption pattern: Companies use fixed wireless because fibre lines are not a viable option, mostly due to location. That pattern is even more obvious in point-to-multipoint wireless. The economic slump that has ravaged the telecom sector has hit point-to-multipoint service providers particularly hard. And the technology’s largest backers AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Sprint Corp./Worldcom Inc. recently abandoned their multipoint initiatives, signalling an overall industry collapse.

There are two types of point-to-multipoint technologies: LMDS (local multipoint distribution system), a super high-speed (up to 1.5Gbps), short-range signal (2 miles) in the 27GHz to 30GHz spectrum; and MMDS (multipoint microwave distribution system), a slower speed (30Mbps), long-range (20 miles) signal in the 2.4GHz to 2.8GHz range. Experiments have also been done with 802.11 technology.

A point-to-multipoint receptor on a buildings sends a signal to a tower, which transmits the signal to the Internet access point. But the equipment and service is expensive and hasn’t caught on IDC estimates that there were 100,000 new point-to-multipoint customers in 2001 compared with 1.7 million customers for DSL, multipoint’s land-based competitor. “The economics of it says it only makes sense to put a tower in fully saturated areas,” says Brad Baldwin, broadband research director at IDC (a sister company to CIO‘s publisher, CXO Media). “In the [San Francisco] Bay area, for example, there is a tower up serving a very dense area. But it is too expensive [compared with DSL] to get enough customers in these areas.”

Dallas-based Clearwire Technologies Inc., a point-to-multipoint ISP targeting small businesses, has had some success charging anywhere from US$100 to US$200 a month for service in remote areas such as West Texas where there are no DSL lines. But other than in out-of-the-way places, the future for point-to-multipoint in the United States is not that bright (Baldwin says he is ready to write off LMDS). However, Craig Mathias, an industry analyst and founder of the Ashland Mass.-based Farpoint Group, isn’t quite so dire, noting that point-to-multipoint may still have a bright future in developing nations that don’t have a telecommunications infrastructure already in place.

Free Space Optics

Free space optics, a third technology trying to catch on, is not fixed wireless in the traditional sense. It is not a radio signal at all, but rather a laser. While it sounds like something out of Star Wars, it actually works the same as fixed wireless data travels through the air and as such gets lumped into the same category almost by default. Free space optics is a relatively new technology. The laser beam is about the size of a baseball and can travel up to half a mile, but because it operates at between 750 to 1,500 nanometres it is invisible to the eye (700 is the highest visible spectrum). It can achieve speed up to 1GB per second.

Larry Ice, CIO of Fisher Communications Inc., a Seattle-based communications and media company that owns and operates several television and radio stations, uses a free space optics service provided by Seattle-based ISP Terabeam Networks Inc. Fisher broke ground on its own building in 1999 and when they began moving into the as-yet-unfinished structure a year later Ice realized that they needed to connect the old and the new offices. Qwest, AT&T and others wanted around US$47,000 a month for high-speed data lines, plus fees to dig up the street to lay the cable. Terabeam was able to connect the buildings at half the price, in half the time and offer 10 times the bandwidth.

Free space optics is not problem-free, however. One foggy day, Ice lost his connection for about an hour. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a hassle because the T-1 backup line he insisted on as a condition to signing with Terabeam wasn’t in place yet. In fact, Ice says that while he was attracted to the speed and ease of installation with free space optics, he only decided to use it once he knew he would also have a landline backup.

The environmental constraints line-of-sight, connection outages in storms are some of the biggest knocks against fixed wireless technology. Even if those fears are overplayed, they remain enough to cloud the technology’s future. Farpoint’s Mathias says that the only reason people are turning to fixed wireless is if they are in an area without or with prohibitively expensive landlines. If this doesn’t push it into a niche market, as many analysts predict it will, it might resign it to permanent fail-back system. Useful, but probably not what Marconi had in mind.

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