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Utopia upended? WiMax, a new wireless technology, calls into question the value of fiber-to-the-home project

Wed, 02/04/2004 - 7:00pm
Staff

Copyright 2004 The Salt Lake Tribune

Salt Lake Tribune (Utah)

February 4, 2004, Wednesday

Rapid advances in wireless broadband technology are raising questions about plans for the development of fiber-optic-to-home networks such as the proposed $540 million Utopia project under consideration by 18 Utah cities.

Dreams of a wireless Internet where users can surf the Web at breakneck speeds, check e-mail or even watch movies on their laptops are fast becoming reality and may eventually render fiber-optic connections obsolete in many locations.

The newest technology is known as WiMax — short for Worldwide Intercompatibility for Microwave Access. It has the backing of high-tech titans such as Intel Corp., which recently announced an initiative to drive down the cost and increase the availability of wireless broadband technologies.

"You can look on WiMax as the next generation of cellular network," Intel spokesman Daniel Francisco said.

WiMax eventually may prove the best and most economical way to provide Internet and other telecommunications services to homes and businesses, Francisco said. "That particularly will be true in areas where you don't have fiber already laid or copper [wires] running down the streets."

By now, many people have heard of Wi-Fi, the wireless technology that allows Internet users to surf the Web in relatively small areas such as coffee shops or airport lounges.

WiMax is Wi-Fi on steroids. From a single base station and a distance of up to 30 miles, WiMax promises to connect thousands of users to the Internet and provide a viable alternative to high-speed cable or digital subscriber line connections.

The general manager of Intel's wireless division, Sean Maloney, in a recent New York Times story said he expects rapid growth in wireless communications. "It [wireless] looks like the Internet in 1994," he said. "The next 10 years will be defined by broadband wireless."

So what does WiMax mean to Utah's Utopia project, which even now is soliciting the 18 cities involved for a financial pledge of taxpayer money to help back a portion of the $540 million in bonds the network needs to fund construction?

WiMax is good technology, but Utopia's proposal of running a fiber-optic connection to every home and business is better, said Jeff Fishburn, chief technology officer at Lindon-based DynamicCity, which is providing the engineering support for Utopia.

"Wireless is still 100,000 times inferior [in terms of speed] to fiber," Fishburn said. "When it comes to capacity, it is the difference between a scooter and a freight train."

The eventual cost of deploying a wireless technology such as WiMax, though, will be far less than the expense of running fiber to every home and business, said Dean Chang, director of product marketing for Boston-based Aperto Networks.

Aperto provides broadband wireless access systems and is working closely with Intel to design, evaluate and test broadband wireless systems using the emerging WiMax technology.

"This technology will compete with fiber in some areas and in others complement it" because it can be used as part of a fiber-optic system, Chang said. He added a key to WiMax's success will be getting the cost to end users for Internet and other services down to the $40 to $50 per month range so it can compete with existing high-speed data services.

Utopia President Paul Morris, who concedes he frequently fields questions about the new wireless potential, said WiMax's promoters still are striving to develop the technology. "They will not be able to offer the speed or capacity that we [Utopia] can, and they're still working to get the most out of their technology."

steve@sltrib.com

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