WiMAX providers target U.S. enterprises

FRAMINGHAM – This fall, a Massachusetts wireless ISP will launch its first WiMAX-based services aimed at business customers in the eastern part of the state.

The move by Pipeline Wireless mirrors that of rival Towerstream in the same market, and by other similar “WiMAX WISPs” across the United States.

For most businesses, their first introduction to WiMAX will be from these kinds of wireless broadband providers, and not from the likes of Tier 1 or Tier 2 operators such as the Clearwire-Sprint partnership, which is struggling to unfold Xohm, a nationwide licensed 2.5GHz band WiMAX network aimed at mobile users. The WiMAX WISPs are using a range of other frequencies, often unlicensed, to deliver all-IP voice and data services that are more cost-effective, more responsive, and faster to deploy than conventional fiber and copper services.

Neither they nor their enterprise customers have to struggle with the current incompatibility of WiMAX equipment. WiMAX WISPs can use the same radio vendor for the base stations and for the customer premises equipment (CPE) to forge a high-quality wireless connection for fixed wireless service. The early mobile WiMAX deployments will face the same requirement, unlike Wi-Fi clients today that generally can connect to any brand of Wi-Fi access point.

Intel’s combined Wi-Fi and WiMAX module will have only limited release this year, and Gartner recently warned users to hold off on mobile WiMAX investments. And more opportunities for such WISPs, and for the WiMAX equipment vendors, are being created as the FCC releases more spectrum, both licensed and unlicensed, for WiMAX use. The City of Marietta, Ga., is using the 4.9GHz band, and Tyco M/A Com’s VIDA fixed WiMAX radios, to upload real-time video streams from anticrime surveillance cameras. The FCC’s release last year of the 3.65GHz-3.7GHz band led to a boomlet of approvals to WISPs planning WiMAX services: 233 as of April. Pipeline and Towerstream were both beneficiaries.

A recent report from Maravedis, a research company that focuses on wireless broadband, concluded that WiMAX offers a lot of U.S. opportunity for companies, and customers, outside the Xohm orbit. The report projects that non-Sprint WiMAX subscribers will exceed 10 million by 2012, up from 500,000 in 2007. “A fixed and/or portable [sometimes called ‘nomadic’] differentiation play, with a strong service model, integrated back-office technologies, and additional services is a powerful enough proposition to bring to market,” according to the report

That’s just what companies like Pipeline and Towerstream are betting on.

Pipeline customers buy a range of Internet access and private data network services, says Chris Hale, CTO for Pipeline Wireless. To date, like many similar companies, Pipeline has used proprietary high-bandwidth radio products, in this case Motorola’s well-known Canopy radios, and frequencies in the 5-GHz band, to deliver enterprise services in what Hale calls the industry sweet spot: data services up to 50Mbps, though some customers have gigabit connections.

For these WISPs, there are two big payoffs with WiMAX. In the 3.65GHz band, WiMAX offers clean, empty, unlicensed spectrum. Second, it lets WISPs provision multiple, separate services, with separate QoS, over a single radio link between a base station and the CPE, Hale says. “We may have a customer with a dedicated megabit [of bandwidth] for 10 concurrent voice calls, who also wants 3Mbps for three remote sites, at 1Mbps each, and a 3Mbit Internet pipe,” he says. “We can create a convergence of services over the same infrastructure.”

Towerstream is making a similar migration from proprietary to WiMAX radios. The company launched its WiMAX trial for fixed services last April in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, using radios from Alvarion. One service offering is the 8Mbps data service, priced at $999. Like Pipeline, the radio equipment supports the mobile WiMAX standard, but is being used to deliver fixed services.

“We’re using it because the mobile side [of WiMAX] will have much more scalability,” says Jeff Thompson, Towerstream president and CEO. “That means economies of scale, which means lower end prices, which is what it’s all about.” Other benefits of the mobile WiMAX gear is better performance without a direct line-of-sight connection between the radios, and a “much better link budget,” which translates into a very reliable signal even under adverse conditions, according to Thompson.

Thompson tried out the compact, indoor Alvarion CPE box himself. “I got just under 6Mbps in each direction, about two miles from the nearest base station,” he says. “I just plugged it into a wall outlet, and plugged my PC into it,” he says. “This could enable a whole different market for Towerstream: Today we have to do a truck roll to bring up customers, which is very expensive.”

Neither company sounds like a WiMAX partisan. “To be very frank, it’s not about the technology,” Thompson says. “You can make money [as a provider] with pre-WiMAX gear.”

Tyco M/A Com is more enamored of WiMAX’s technical benefits, at least for the 4.9GHz public safety band. Unlike 802.11, which is a contention-based access protocol, WiMAX uses a scheduling mechanism, so applications can be guaranteed bandwidth, says Greg Henderson, director of broadband technology and products, for Tyco M/A Com. That makes it ideal for uploading high-bandwidth streaming video in surveillance and public safety applications, or for mobile command centers, he says. And WiMAX is more immune to denial-of-service attacks, which often exploit Wi-Fi’s contention mechanism, according to Henderson.

In May, Tyco released a hardened, high-power WiMAX client (a CPE box) for its VIDA product line. Using a 5MHz channel, the new client has a maximum RF power output of 27 dBM, which is the maximum allowed by the FCC and 12-15 dBM greater than rivals, according to Henderson. With that power, equivalent to about 1.2 watts (most Wi-Fi clients are measured in milliwatts), the client can support 1M to 19Mbps, creating a powerful, resilient uplink to the base station.

Pipeline Wireless is in the last stages of picking its WiMAX vendor. It’s going through regulatory permitting processes with various Massachusetts cities and towns. CTO Hale expects the network to go live later this year, not long after Clearwire-Sprint’s scheduled September launch of Xohm in Baltimore.

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