As of December 31, 2004, nearly 550,000 subscribers, slightly less than 1.5% of all broadband users, connected via wireless access platforms. The share of wireless broadband has declined slightly since 1999, when it was 1.8%. However, the sector has recently seen vibrant entrepreneurial activity and will likely grow in importance. An estimated 3,000-8,000 Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) offer wireless broadband services across the U.S. based on a wide range of technological solutions.
Wireless Personal Area Networks (WPANs) cover distances up to 10 meters and may use Bluetooth or ultra-wideband technology. Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) typically use 802.11 devices to cover distances up to 100 meters both in-house and outdoors. WiFi and mesh networks are also used to provide contiguous wireless coverage from downtown metropolitan areas (e.g., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; or Houston, Texas) to entire counties (e.g., Oakland County, Michigan, which will cover an area of 2,360 square kilometers). Such networks are built upon open source solutions such as the widely-deployed LocustWorld Meshbox, and proprietary technology such as Tropos Networks’ metro-scale WiFi mesh network.
A range of technologies is also available to deploy Wireless Metropolitan Area Networks (WMANs). Solutions include Motorola’s Canopy, Alvarion’s BreezeMAX (a WiMAX compatible product), or Flarion’s Flash OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) platform. Mobile carriers have begun to upgrade their networks to 3G platforms, either CDMA2000 1xEV-DO, WCDMA, or UMTS/HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access). Moreover, wireless broadband is used by wireline carriers, such as Bell South, to extend the edges of their DSL networks with WiMAX platforms.
The FCC has undertaken several measures to facilitate the development of wireless broadband. The Commission has allocated additional licensed and unlicensed bands to wireless broadband. For example, in 2003 the agency allocated 255 MHz of spectrum in the 5.470-5.725 GHz band to unlicensed services. The FCC has adopted simplified equipment certification rules and has taken initiatives to accelerate tower siting. In 2005, the Commission allocated 50 MHz of spectrum in the 3.650 GHz band using a hybrid model that grants open access subject to registration so as to facilitate interference reduction.
Wireless broadband operation in unlicensed spectrum raises complicated coordination issues. In response, voluntary industry organizations emerged to mitigate potential interference and improve quality of service. One example is Broadband Network Access Coordination (BANC), a group operating in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Another is the West Texas Area Spectrum Coordination (WTASC), formed in 2004.
Overall, wireless broadband is a vibrant sector in which many entrepreneurial experiments are carried out. Users benefit from a wide variety of solutions and pricing plans. In the long-run, it remains to be seen whether the sector will continue to compete with wireline broadband or whether it will evolve into a complement to wireline services.
FCC, Connected on the Go: Broadband Goes Wireless, Report by the Wireless Broadband Access Task Force, Washington, DC, February 2005, available at http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-257247A1.pdf.