In response to the ever-growing demand for affordable broadband services, service providers are spending billions building networks to accommodate the needs of commercial and residential customers.

Interestingly, constructing the public portion of the network to distribute these services is relatively easy to do, especially since many of the basic building blocks are already in place.

As a result of anti-trust regulations, Local Exchange Carriers (LECs), often known as the local Bell companies, are required to allow service providers to locate equipment within their central offices.

Because of decades-old limitations on distances that telephone signals can be transmitted, central offices must be within several miles of the customers they serve. This allows for the broadband network to be brought to within close proximity of most potential customers simply by bringing it into the central office.

The struggle for most service providers is getting these services from the central office out to the end customers. This is known as the “last mile.”

However, wireless is becoming one of the most promising methods for providing last-mile access. Here’s a look at what’s fueling the trend.

The problem
By regulation, LECs are required to make their customer lines available to service providers at a “competitive” price. Today, using these lines is the most common method for distribution by service providers. However, the lines often have limitations, including distance and their physical quality, which may make them less than ideal for providing broadband services.

In addition, many service providers do not want to be reliant upon the LECs for installation and support services or tied to reselling LEC lines at a cost that might reduce their competitiveness. As a result, service providers are looking at alternate methods for delivering services across the last mile. Some are using “brute force”—building their own copper or fiber-optic networks. This is extraordinarily expensive but does free the service provider from reliance upon the LEC.

Because of the expense, service providers are initially focusing on only the most lucrative customers or areas where they can leverage that investment to garner a large number of customers. Examples include installing distribution within high-rise office buildings or wiring office parks.

Other service providers are partnering with traditional utility companies (or they may be utility companies themselves). Typically, electric companies own the utility poles or underground duct banks where lines can be hung.

Cable companies already have the ideal broadband distribution network in place. Water and sewer companies have investigated using right-of-way or even the insides of their pipes and tunnels to carry access lines. This method is slightly less expensive than the brute force method because right-of-way costs are lessened or eliminated.

The wireless solution
With wireless distribution, there is no reliance on right-of-way, fiber optic, or copper cabling. The only necessary element is a transmission antenna with line-of-sight to the customer sites. In fact, with some wireless broadband solutions, even line-of-sight is no longer required.

Wireless broadband providers are using just about any high point as a transmission point. Tall buildings, the top of a hill, church steeples, and cell tower locations are all fair game. Depending upon the height of the transmitting antenna, the footprint—the reach of the wireless signal—may be as much as 15 miles, which is greater than the coverage of most LEC central offices.

There are two basic approaches to wireless transmission: unlicensed and licensed.

Unlicensed and licensed bands
The unlicensed bands have several advantages. Both the transmitting and receiving equipment are relatively inexpensive (less than $20,000 for transmission and $2,000 per site for receiving). An unlicensed system can be installed very quickly and in many cases requires very little configuration or tuning initially.

However, the unlicensed bands are becoming increasingly crowded, with devices such as personal two-way radios and cordless telephones competing for bandwidth. In addition, there is no control preventing a competitor from placing another unlicensed system nearby, which may cause the system to cease operating or begin operating erratically.

The licensed bands have the advantage of guaranteeing that the spectrum will be available with no interference. Setting up a licensed system can take up to 60 days for license application and approval. Also, both the licensing process and equipment can be expensive, and setting up the system requires specialized skills.

Many wireless broadband providers are using a two-tiered approach. Initial installation is done with unlicensed equipment, allowing the provider to quickly set up a system and begin getting revenue-paying customers online. As the number of customers attached through the transmission site grows, the system is converted to a licensed band.

The ultimate result is that customers have another, often more cost-effective alternative for broadband access. These providers are not everywhere yet but expect to see more and more coming on line.
Are you using wireless technology to bridge the “last mile?” What are the advantages? Are there disadvantages not mentioned here? Send us an e-mail or start a discussion.