The swelling bubble

Contrary to all the noise about 3G (third generation) cellular networks and their widespread deployment by early next year, most (if not all) of the major carriers are still testing the wireless waters with alternative technologies from small startups.

ArrayComm Inc., Flarion Technologies Inc., IPWireless Inc., and Navini Networks Inc. are just four of the dozen or so waiting to get the official nod from a carrier. The truth is, the carriers in the States have not invested the billions in spectrum auctions that their European counterparts have. And if a company can show these carriers a better, less costly way to offer wireless access to data, they are keeping an open mind.

Almost all of these alternative-technology providers claim that the form factor for their high-speed wireless solutions is about the size of a bread box and that the wireless carriers could still use their current cell towers.

ArrayComm is the creation of Marty Cooper, the man usually credited with the invention of the cell phone when he worked at Motorola in the '70s. ArrayComm claims performance of 1Mbps using its I-Burst and Smart Antenna technology; just pop in an ArrayComm-enabled modem and you're off. Ask Cooper, and he'll tell you ArrayComm is in talks with all of the major carriers, and it is in trials in San Diego.

Meanwhile, both IPWireless and Navini are a bit more precise about with whom they are making deals. Sprint announced this month that it is testing Navini technology in Houston and IPWireless in Montreal.

Navini's nonline-of-sight architecture runs on 2.4GHz and 2.6GHz spectrums. Of course, if those numbers ring a bell, you guessed it: Wi-Fi.

IPWireless, commercially deployed in Maui, Hawaii; New Zealand; and Vancouver, British Columbia; claims up to 9Mbps transmission rate. A flavor of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), it too operates in the 2.5GHz spectrum. It's getting awfully crowded there, isn't it ?

Finally, we have Flarion, an all-IP voice and data network that uses its flash OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) technology. Flarion doesn't run at 2.4GHz or 2.5GHz, but it does require the 700MHz spectrum, which has its own set of problems. Mainly, nobody is quite sure who will own it after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission auctions it off.

So why do we care about any of these solutions? In one sense, we don't really. We are only voyeurs watching as the infant wireless industry struggles to find its footing. But how can it find its footing if it doesn't know where it's standing?

Aside from focus groups, small trials, and perhaps surveys, no one really knows what either businesses or consumers want from wireless technology. Will all of us be satisfied with good, reliable e-mail service and leave it at that? A distinct possibility. Or will we buy into the carriers' dream and subscribe to endless data services and deploy mission-critical applications across the air?

The carriers are placing a big bet on the latter. If they are wrong, when the wireless bubble bursts, the fallout will be felt worldwide.

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More about Federal Communications CommissionFlarion TechnologiesIPWirelessMotorolaNavini NetworksSprint

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