Proxim taps 802.11a for wireless broadband

SAN FRANCISCO -- Equipment announced Monday by Proxim Inc. adds to a growing array of wireless alternatives to wired broadband and leased lines.

The gear, which Proxim calls the Tsunami MP.11a line, is designed to let service providers and enterprises build long-range outdoor networks that take advantage of inexpensive commodity hardware designed for Wi-Fi wireless LANs. It's based on IEEE 802.11a technology, with a maximum carrying capacity of 54Mbit/sec. and represents a step up from Proxim's currently shipping Tsunami MP.11 line, which uses 802.11b gear that offers 11Mbit/sec.

The 802.11a technology has more channels, allowing service providers to offer bandwidth to more customers, and its higher data rate opens the door to services for small and medium-size businesses, according to Ken Haase, director of product marketing and business development at the Sunnyvale, Calif., company. It can also provide backhaul connections from one network to another, such as a wireless "fat pipe" from a public WLAN hot spot.

The market for broadband fixed wireless systems is already crowded with technologies, most of them proprietary, but the introduction of standards-based products may help drive down prices and help wireless compete against Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and cable modem services, analysts said. Though systems such as Proxim's aren't designed for use with off-the-shelf client devices from third parties, high production volumes should reduce the cost of the standard components on which they're based.

Cisco Systems Inc. introduced its own fixed wireless system based on 802.11a in June, and the IEEE 802.16a standard approved early this year has drawn interest from major vendors interested in wireless metropolitan-area networks, including Intel Corp. and Proxim itself (see story).

Though standards-based, Proxim's MP.11a products are specialized. Typical WLAN gear couldn't be used for the kind of controlled, multiple-customer services for which Proxim designs its outdoor gear, Haase said. Proxim uses its Wireless Outdoor Router Protocol (WORP) to allocate a guaranteed amount of bandwidth to each customer, so a few users can't take up the whole capacity of a base station as they could with a conventional WLAN access point.

WORP allocates network capacity by assigning brief time slots to all the users who want to send and receive data and by giving each a turn to use the bandwidth, Haase said. At the service management level, service-provider technicians can throttle the amount of bandwidth available to each user through a simple Web interface or a Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service server.

Each base station has an effective capacity of 30Mbit/sec. and can serve as many as 100 subscriber units, Haase said. Service providers can also support more customers by putting several base stations on a tower, assigning a different channel from 802.11a's assigned spectrum to each of them and pointing them in different directions. Proxim offers antennas with ranges as narrow as 30 degrees. The system's range is 4 to 32 miles under U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulations and 1 to 7.5 miles under European Telecommunications Standards Institute rules, according to Proxim. Unlike some fixed wireless systems, it doesn't require a direct line of sight between the base station and the device at the customer's premise.

The MP.11a lineup includes a base station unit with a list price of $1,295, a Subscriber Unit for business customer premises for $695 and a Residential Subscriber Unit for $495. Street prices for the subscriber units should be less than $400 and $300, respectively, according to Haase.

Fixed wireless has been a hit in some countries with relatively little wired infrastructure already in place, and there's a significant market for it in areas of the U.S. that other broadband services don't reach, Haase said. In some cases, it may also cost a service provider less to set up the service than to build or lease wired capacity, he added.

"Even in this country, it should have done better. The reason it didn't was primarily a function of cost," said Craig Mathias, a principal at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. "The subscriber units themselves have just been too expensive."

However, costs are falling toward competitiveness with DSL and cable, with the help of standards, he added.

"Once you get into the $300 range, the market starts to open up a bit," he said.

Standards-based technology is expected to move in on the higher end of the fixed wireless business, too. Proxim expects to release 802.16a products in the second half of next year to become part of its high-end product line alongside the current, proprietary Multipoint 60, Haase said. He wouldn't comment on the capabilities of the 802.16a products but said the Multipoint 60 offers effective throughput of 54Mbit/sec. and can support as many as 1,000 subscriber units. With declining costs, 802.16a may someday compete against its 802.11a products, but the market will determine how long that takes, he added.

"We're very supportive of what's being done with 802.16a, but we also think that the 802.11a products have significant life in them," Haase said.

The MP.11a products will ship in volume by the middle this month in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Sweden, the U.K. and several other countries. Availability in other countries, including China, Russia and South Korea, will follow local regulatory approval, according to Proxim.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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