The Wireless Lamp Post - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell

April 22, 2004

The base stations have enough memory to store relatively large volumes of location-specific data right at the lamp post, and enough processing capacity and network bandwidth to push it "almost instantaneously" to mobile client devices passing by.

"This is a far more user friendly way to interact with wireless information," Abell says. "The data on your device changes constantly and it's always location and user specific. You get a much more intimate relationship with the information."

At the same time, subscribers will have full access to the public Internet as well - even though LastMile is "not a great believer in the browser model," Abell says.

He seems disinclined to talk about using the network to provide high-speed access to fixed locations, despite the fact that a big chunk of population will clearly be within its footprint, and the network has bandwidth to burn. It has to be part of the calculation, though.

"By putting all that intelligence at the roadside and also giving access to the larger Internet, we're now providing all those wireless information services to the mass market," Abell points out. "That will pay for everything the police want, government wants, the transport and auto industries want."

Consumers won't even have to pay that much for the service if LastMile has its way. Some of the mobile push services it envisions will be advertising supported.

The economics of the company's technology -- low-power radios, small antennas, inexpensive flash memory and low-cost 386 processor chips running in parallel - means service providers will be able to significantly undercut wireline competitors on traditional high-speed access fees.

"Service providers are constantly talking about ARPU [Average Revenue Per User] and how they can get more out of existing users," Abell says. "But there is a question of how much customers are ultimately willing to pay. We actually propose to reduce that cost [to the user] as opposed to finding clever ways to get them to pay more."

The technology, if LastMile can make it work, will deliver huge amounts of bandwidth at prices well below what current network service providers charge, and it will enable useful new applications.

So what's the catch?

First of all, LastMile doesn't quite have regulatory clearance yet to use the 63 GHz spectrum for non-telematics applications. Abell is clearly confident the company will get it, at least in the UK.

"We've been discussing this with regulators for a period of about four years," he says. "My only comment is that this thing will take its inevitable path."

By which he means that it's in the bag because government has a strong interest in his plan working. Government wants the wireless bandwidth for its own applications, plus it is committed to extending broadband access to all citizens by 2006. LastMile's approach provides an economically feasible way of doing both things.

It's not just the regulations. LastMile's plan hinges in part on its being able to sell service provider/network manager franchisees both technology plus rights of way. So it must also secure access rights to publicly owned poles.

Abell believes government will grant these rights for the same reasons of self-interest that will motivate it to clear service providers to deliver consumer information services over 63 GHz spectrum.

It's important to note, however, that it hasn't done either yet.

Government is one key player. Others include wireless carriers, power companies and other prospective service providers. Abell claims LastMile has been talking to some of them for at least two years and they are very interested.

Part of their motivation, he says, is "problems with Wi-Fi. The price for Wi-Fi service is too high for most users to bear. So [service providers] are looking for a [wireless broadband] model that works."

That said, the vision for the LastMile network of the future does not exclude Wi-Fi. The infrastructure can support multiple wireless technologies. "The lamp posts will be polyglot, meaning they can speak many languages," Abell says. Including Wi-Fi.

LastMile's grand plan is intriguing to say the least. It will be great if it can bring it off. The plan does seem overly complex, though, and full of uncertainties, such as the viability of getting advertisers to pay for key consumer mobile applications, for example. It's also a little eerie that key parts of the plan have been tried in other contexts and failed. The late-lamented Metricom could not make a go of its Ricochet mobile broadband wireless service which also used roadside poles for mounting wireless infrastructure -- albeit with a much different wireless technology. Pointcast, once a dot-com darling, failed with its browser-busting strategy for "pushing" information out to users from the Net rather than letting them go fishing for it.

If LastMile succeeds in the UK, then mainland Europe is next on the company's list, followed by the United States.

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