BellSouth Expands Broadband Wireless Plans

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After delays due to Hurricane Katrina and the availability of needed technology, BellSouth now is looking to expand its deployment of broadband wireless services and launch a trial of WiMAX technology, which could double Internet access speeds.

The Atlanta-based Bell operator recently announced its BellSouth Wireless Broadband Service will expand in the third quarter to parts of Melbourne, Fla.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Greenville, Miss.; Charleston, S.C.; and Albany, Ga.

UP AND RUNNING

The service, based on a pre-WiMAX technology, is already up and running in Athens, Ga.; Palatka and DeLand, Fla.; New Orleans; and Gulfport, Miss., offering residential and business users broadband Internet connections as high as 1.5 Megabits per second downstream and at upstream rates between 128 and 284 Kilobits per second. If BellSouth launches services in future markets based on standard WiMAX, that data rate could rise to 3 Mbps downstream, to the home or office.

In any case, the goal is for the wireless Internet connections to extend rather than replace wired digital subscriber line connections, according to Mel Levine, BellSouth’s director of product development.

“Even in metro areas, we have spaces where we don’t have DSL coverage. And then when we get out to rural areas where we have DSL, but it goes so far out and the economics don’t carry it farther,” he said. “So what you are seeing is our plan using wireless broadband to push broadband farther out.”

Technology-wise, BellSouth Wireless Broadband Service uses 2.3 Gigahertz Wireless Communications Services spectrum the telco owns in all of its markets except for Athens, Ga. In that market, BellSouth is using 2.5 GHz Broadband Radio Services spectrum.

Navini Networks has supplied non-standards based, pre-WiMAX radio technology. Base stations attached to local radio towers supply the wireless connection, which feeds a line-of-sight modem at the subscriber’s home or office.

Levine noted that BellSouth has been evaluating the technology since January 2002 and made its decision to deploy the technology a year and a half ago.

But after deploying it in Athens in 2005 and expanding it to include Palatka and DeLand, Fla., “unfortunately, a lady named Katrina came marching through our territory, and that sort of disrupted our plans,” Levine said. “Once the hurricane hit, we switched all of our attention to the Gulf Coast and we went ahead and deployed all of our equipment into New Orleans for disaster recovery and in Gulfport and Biloxi.”

DEVICES LAGGING

In addition to the hurricane, the larger problem has been in developing the technology and devices to support it. WiMAX is an up-and-coming technology, but the latest version — 802.16e — has only recently been set as a standard. Vendors have not as yet developed products such as base stations and modems that will create a commercial WiMAX network. That’s the reason BellSouth is using a pre-WiMAX technology, Levine noted.

There also is a stumbling block created by the spectrum, which is split into two bands. In between those bands is a chunk of spectrum satellite radio providers, including XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, are using to boost their satellite signals, and that is generating interference problems.

Since the Federal Communications Commission has not weighed in to define acceptable levels of interference between the bands, vendors aren’t sure how to configure their products. That has “thrown a blanket over development of platforms,” Levine said.

Nevertheless, BellSouth has announced plans to start lab testing WiMAX gear from Alcatel starting in the third quarter. The trial will evaluate Alcatel’s Evolium product line based on the 802.16e WiMAX standard, which allows for broadband mobile applications akin to a cellular phone service.

Levine is quick to note the goal there is not to create a mobile broadband-wireless offering — especially given BellSouth already has such a service, through its ownership stake in Cingular Wireless. Instead, BellSouth is hoping that a WiMAX standards-based platform draws in multiple vendors and therefore lowers cost to BellSouth.

But while the lab trial is going forward, Levine doesn’t expect to see equipment using the new mobile WiMAX standard coming into the market until late 2007 or even into 2008.

Indeed, despite the recent hype surrounding the technology, WiMAX’s market prospects may in reality be more limited, according to Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at analyst firm Gartner Research.

RURAL OPPORTUNITIES

For starters, it is as yet a data-only technology, and most estimates put the maximum throughput for WiMAX at about 3 Mbps downstream — so it won’t compete well in areas where DSL and cable modem services are offered at twice that speed or more, Dulaney noted.

As such, BellSouth’s strategy to use its pre-WiMAX service in areas where its DSL service won’t reach could work, he said.

“That makes sense, and then it’s a profitability issue,” Dulaney noted of BellSouth’s strategy. “Rural farming, unless the government passes a law like it did in the early days with telephones to subsidize it, is not going to be an area that they are going to target. It’s going to be well-heeled suburbs.”

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