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Sprint is working with two fixed-wireless startups to test technology for wireless broadband services using equipment that can transmit a signal through solid objects, the carrier announced Wednesday.

Navini Networks Inc. and IPWireless Inc. each have fixed wireless modems designed to be about as easy for consumers to install as a cable modem, and both companies' equipment can transmit signals through walls and dense vegetation. Sprint is testing how the modems work in different environments.

Sprint is holding feasibility trials over several months in Houston, said Alastair Westgarth, Navini's chief executive officer. Navini's base stations mounted on cell phone towers have a range of seven miles to eight miles (11.2 kilometers to 12.9 kilometers) to under optimal field conditions, but the company expects a working range of three miles to five miles, he said.

Sprint wants to know what effect distance, weather, building material and customer use patterns have on signal quality, throughput and other factors, he said. It's not a market test with real consumers yet, but he hopes to see plans for such a test develop for later this year.

"It's more than a technology trial; it's a business case test," he said. Once quality of service has been determined, Sprint must figure out if the price customers will pay for the service matches the cost of providing it. "Just because I'm offering wireless broadband, that doesn't mean I can charge you twice as much as a DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) connection," he said.

With the lock local phone service providers have on the DSL market and with local cable companies absorbing consumer demand for cable broadband Internet access, long distance companies have looked to wireless technology to work their way into providing broadband services to homes and small businesses.

Fixed wireless could offer an alternative to phone lines for reaching a customer's premises to offer broadband service. But the physical limitations imposed by trees and close buildings made earlier fixed wireless technology a less reliable alternative to wired connections.

A Sprint executive noted that the trials with Navini and IPWireless are preliminary, and said that the company isn't ready to publicly commit to spending hundreds of millions to deploy a fixed wireless network.

"We certainly believe that this technology provides the potential to compete in the marketplace," said Sheldon Fisher, Sprint's assistant vice president for network operations and technology. The decision to move forward will depend on how trials go, he said.

The need for line-of-sight from a fixed wireless transceiver and a customer's modem hampered the market for first-generation fixed wireless Internet connections, he said.

Fixed wireless broadband took its hits right along with the rest of the telecommunications industry, as AT&T Wireless Services Inc., WorldCom Inc. and other carriers closed down or sharply curtailed their offerings. Though wildly popular with its customers, the Ricochet service from Metricom Inc. ended with the company's bankruptcy in August 2001, because Metricom couldn't continue to offer expected quality of service at competitive prices and still pay off its debts.

Aerie Networks Inc. in Denver bought Metricom's assets, and began trials in March for a Ricochet revival in Colorado. Other fixed wireless providers like Teligent Inc. and WinStar Communications Inc. simply went bankrupt.

Carriers started talking about wireless broadband again earlier this year, but not with fixed wireless as it had been deployed in first generation systems. Wireless carriers want multimodal systems to emerge for their 3G (third generation) wireless devices, so that a cell phone might also use Bluetooth short-range radio technology and Wi-Fi wireless networks based on the 802.11b standard.

Both Navini, based in Richardson, Texas, and IPWireless, based in San Bruno, California, are privately held startups. Navini's technology operates using 2.4GHz and 2.6GHz MMDS (Multichannel Multipoint Distribution System) frequencies, while IPWireless uses UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) cellular technology.

Navini and IPWireless operate using licensed spectrum bands, as opposed to the unlicensed spectrum used for 802.11b wireless networking. Wireless Internet service providers using 802.11b can interfere with each other's data transmissions, an analyst cautioned.

"Customers using 802.11b tell me it can get really messy with interference," said Lisa Pierce, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc. Overlapping signals from two Wi-Fi transmitters will turn data caught in the crossfire into hash. "If you're in the way, you get blasted to hell. Our general recommendation has been to use licensed frequencies."

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More about Aerie NetworksAT&TAT&T WirelessDOJGiga Information GroupIPWirelessMetricomMicrosoftNavini NetworksSprintTeligentUMTSWinstar CommunicationsWorldCom

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