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Go Wireless!

by Thomas More

Copyright 1998 by Thomas More. All rights reserved.

Recent changes by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will allow wireless Internet connections that are faster and less costly than the hard-wired T1 connections currently used by corporations for multi-user (LAN) access. This will fuel the growth of wireless business connections, and that will allow wireless access to become more widely available, and more affordable for the individual user.

The FCC action on September 17, 1998, allows providers of wireless direct Internet connections to provide users the ability to send data at the same blazing speeds that they have been able only to receive it in the past. Like direct satellite connections (see "More Online,"WWWiz, Issue 18), land-based microwave Internet service providers (ISPs) were only allowed to send high-speed data to you from the Internet. In addition to the small "dish" antenna required to receive the data, you needed a dial-up or direct connection over old, slow telephone wires in order to send data to the Internet. So even if the only "data" you send is some email and the universal resource locators (URLs) for the Web sites you wish to visit, it's going to be much faster now over wireless LAN connections.

Wait a minute. Dish antenna? I was thinking of wireless access as being really portable, so I could sit under a tree and connect to my company's network (or the World Wide Web) without wires - that vision of the future in Jean-Louis Gassee's book, The Third Apple. I also have a friend who's building a sailboat, and he would like to know what kind of wireless Internet access might be available from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Portable wireless modems have been around for a long time, and they are becoming more affordable, but they are just as slow as your old phone-line modem. In fact, a portable wireless modem is a modem attached to a cell phone. However, the newer ones are digital, which is more reliable than most cell-phone services, which use the older analog technology. All the same, even with a digital cell-modem, you won't get fast access to the Internet at the moment. Many of the new digital modem networks use theCellular Digital Packet Data protocol (CDPD), which was developed by a consortium of telephone companies' mobile communications divisions. At 19.2 kbps, this is not fast, but you can carry it in your shirt pocket. For more information on CDPD, you can check the Wireless Data Forum, a Washington, D.C., consortium of wireless communications providers. They're also looking for a technical director. Hmmm. Keep in mind that these local networks are a type of cell-phone service, so you have to be close enough to one of your provider's "cells" in order to get a connection. You may be unwired, but you're still on an invisible tether.

In addition to those networks using the CDPD protocol, there are digital-modem networks in some areas, who have developed their own standards for digital data transmission by cell phone. Most employ spread-spectrum technology, which changes the frequency of the wireless transmission every half-second or so, which completely eliminates eavesdropping! If you're in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C. or Seattle areas, you can get unwired with Ricochet, a digital cell-modem provider. How about unlimited Internet access for $29.95 per month? $299.95 for a year? If you're thrilled by the idea of really portable access for your laptop, Ricochet offers a wireless modem that you can plug into your Toshiba™ and connect to your company network (or the World Wide Web) from that spot under a tree. Oh, by the way, you have to buy the phone/modem. Ricochet's new SX model sells for $349. If you're on a budget, their original wireless modem is still available for $149. In either case, there's a $45 activation fee, so it costs a couple hundred to get unwired. A wireless modem doesn't have the blinding speed of a direct-access antenna system, but you can carry it around with you, which you can't quite do with the dish.

The FCC's recent action means that fixed-antenna wireless providers will be able to move data at high speeds in both directions. Partly because of the previous restrictions, most of the nation's 250 commercial wireless providers, which serve over a million customers, have provided mostly "cable" TV (without the cable). Now more of those companies will decide to also offer high-speed Internet connections that are not only faster, but less costly than hard-wired high-speed connections, which require installation by your local telephone company (telco), no matter who your ISP is. The telco charges a monthly fee in addition to the installation charges; naturally, this cost is passed on to the customer by the ISP.

So how do these costs compare? First, we have to count apples and oranges. You're already familiar with modem speeds like 28.8 and 56k (the "k" means thousands of bits per second). Well, a direct wire (T1) connects to the Internet at 1,544 kbps, or 1.54 Mbps (million bits per second). To put that in perspective, a T1 line is 80 times faster than a 19.2 kbps cell-modem, and 27 times faster than a 56k modem. Of course, it's also a lot more expensive than a modem connection, which is why it is mostly used by businesses that have many online users who share the greater speed, or actually the greater volume of data that can be moved. This volume capacity is called bandwidth. It's a measure of how much data can be transferred simultaneously.

Global Pacific Internet is the only ISP in southern California which currently offers wireless T1 access which actually delivers double the bandwidth of a standard hard-wired T1 line. The doubling of data capacity comes from allowing full T1 speed for sending and receiving dataat the same time, so the effective bandwidth is 3 Mbps instead of 1.5 Mbps. (It's 1.5 Mbps in both directions.) It's also less costly than a hard-wired T1 because there are no telco charges. No wire; no cost. This can save you $600 a month, or more if you're out in the suburbs!

So I asked Lou Valliere, Director of Marketing for Global Pacific, how the cost of a wireless T1 system would compare with a hard-wired T1 connection in, say Irvine, for a company of 350 employees, where up to 100 people may be online at any one time. Currently they have a hard-wired T1 connection that costs them about $2,000 per month.

"A wireless T1 is $900 per month," Lou replied, "and that's cheaper than a 384k frame-relay service, and the wireless connection is about three to five times faster. There's other savings, too. You can upgrade a wireless LAN connection without having to replace a lot of expensive hardware, which you would [have to replace] with a land line."

Lou explained that Global Pacific has seen a sharp increase lately in companies switching to wireless. "Last year we had less than a dozen wireless LAN connections in Orange County," Lou said. "This year we have over 40, and we're setting them up four or five every week. It's faster and cheaper. What else can I tell you?"

So I asked, "What about my friend in the sailboat, bobbing around in the Pacific? Have you any answer for him?"

Unfortunately, Lou's answer was not encouraging. He pointed out that microwave Internet connections require line-of-sight. Your dish antenna has to "see" the tower or tall building where the base station is. My friend can't very well dial up a modem connection, and unless you're Jacques Cousteau or the U.S. Navy, a two-way direct-satellite link is not available - yet. But you can operate a global-position satellite (GPS) receiver at sea, even with the motion of a small boat, so I'll bet it's just a matter of time before you can get an Internet connection right out of thin air, anywhere. I know a spot in the shade of a big tree.


During the week, Thomas More writes rather technical stuff about business software, but on weekends he likes to loosen up a bit and write about WWWiz stuff.


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