Untethered Internet Competition Going Up

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Back when multipoint distribution service had only one
"M" -- before it became multichannel MDS, and even before the existence of the Multichannel
you now hold in your hand -- there was a dream of wireless data distribution.

MDS pioneers such as long-gone Microband Co. of America
envisioned using the "leftover" bandwidth in the 10-MHz MDS spectrum for local
over-the-air transmission of business data -- an idea that seemed way futuristic in the
early 1970s, when MDS was born.

The vendors that created the MDS business for one-channel
pay TV -- companies such as Varian and Andrew -- supported the idea, since business data,
even in that analog era, looked like it had a great future.

End of nostalgic history reminisce: Last week's
"strategy announcement" by Cisco Systems that it is ready to supply
wireless-networking technology to the still-languishing MMDS industry brings the story up
to date.

It's part of Cisco's grandly titled
"Broadband Fixed Wireless Ecosystem," and it is a loud reminder to wire-bound
data deliverers that "broadbandwidth" competition looms in the air above them.

Using the Wireless Ecosystem technology, new and existing
Internet-service providers could expand their repertoire of data, voice and video services
without the burden of connections to the local telephone network.

Cisco's fixed-wireless-service package envisions a
$500 transceiver that can pick up high-speed Internet and data signals even in congested
areas.

The recently created coalition -- which includes Cisco plus
Motorola, Broadcom, Texas Instruments and other chip-makers, as well as
electronics-product manufacturers and system integrators -- seeks to establish a global
technical standard for such services. Those firms promise to spend up to $1 billion to
develop a new set of Internet-based wireless technologies.

The coalition emphasizes that its two-way data, voice and
video capabilities "to both homes and businesses" will enable high-speed
services "comparable to today's most advanced cable networks." Among other
features, the group claims it will overcome "line-of-sight, distance-reach,
installation and antenna-size problems of existing proprietary wireless systems."

Cisco's methodical purchases of enabling technology
during the past year have paved the way for its latest strategy. Notably, its acquisition
of Clarity Wireless gave Cisco access to high-speed fixed-wireless "vector orthogonal
frequency-division multiplexing" (VOFDM), which can provide a viable alternative to
cable-modem and digital-subscriber-line services.

Critics are already complaining that Cisco -- despite its
aggressive acquisitions in related wireless fields -- is a latecomer to the business.

Nortel, Lucent, Ericsson and Nokia also have
broadband-wireless ambitions and customers already in the sector. Moreover, formidable and
flexible competitors already abound as service operators seek a role in this emerging
category.

WinStar and Teligent are picking off big corporate users of
fixed-wireless access, and their infrastructures could be adapted for home, office and
other future data-hungry markets. WinStar in particular has video and voice aspirations in
its package.

Even AT&T -- you know, the old ampersand abyss that
isn't in the Broadband & Internet Services sector -- has figured out that
over-the-air goes well beyond the PCS phone services it now offers. The rationale for its
wireless-tracking-stock plan stems in part from the businesses it can develop for homes
and office in broadband-wireless delivery.

Let's put the looming boom in wireless services into
context. At last month's Comdex trade show, information appliances -- including
portable handheld devices fed by wireless delivery -- generated the real buzz,
overshadowing traditional personal-computing products.

And two months ago, at the Telecom '99 extravaganza in
Geneva, wireless systems -- especially broadband wireless -- seemed to be the only story.

In other words, entrenched suppliers better look up.

Whether Cisco and its allies -- or another group of vendors
-- unlock the broadband-wireless bonanza, their efforts will change the competitive
landscape and skyscape. Tethered carriers, including DSL operators, will confront the
wireless options.

This terrestrial wireless Internet plan is also getting a
jump on satellite ventures such as the limited "Directway" service Hughes
Network Systems has established as a prelude to its full-service "Spaceway," due
in 2002 (or thereabouts).

Back in the early days of MDS and MMDS, data was sloughed
to the side as would-be providers concentrated on video service, which they expected to
drive that market. It's a different world today.

Just as wireline phone companies are admitting that data is
surpassing voice as the primary content flowing over their networks, broadband carriers
will soon find that data rivals video as a major occupant of their bandwidth.

Customers don't care how the signals get to them, as
long as they are reliable and clear. That's even more important in the digital
environment.

Homes and offices are fixed targets for the over-the-air
signals of new broadband-wireless providers. And even though wireless bandwidth may be
limited (as is copper capacity), the air is always there.

I-Way Patrol columnist and vocabulary builder Gary Arlen
appreciates the MMDS industry's verbal contribution: "beam bender," a
technology for pushing line-of-sight signals around tall buildings.

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