Long Distance Wi-Fi

By Adam Stone

April 16, 2003

With some proprietary tweaks, 5G Wireless has pushed the boundaries of 802.11 range up to many miles instead of just feet. If you don't believe it, ask Garden Grove, CA, where this solution connects all the municipal buildings.

Those in the 802.11 world know the trade-off: You get great speed with Wi-Fi, but only over limited distances.

But, suppose you could deliver actual Wi-Fi -- not another standard like 802.16a, AKA WirelessMAN -- over a distance of several miles without a line of sight. What kind of business opportunities would that open up?

Executives at one wireless player say they can do just that, and analysts are intrigued by the possibilities offered by such an approach.

"We operate within the 802.11 standard, but we push the standard to the limits, and we are getting it to go distances that it has never gone before," said Jerry Dix, president of 5G Wireless Communications in Marina Del Rey, CA. He claims to be sending a signal eight to ten miles at full 802.11 speeds.

Dix said his firm has developed proprietary "enhancements" to 802.11 that make these distances possible. These same enhancements eliminate the need for a direct line of sight.

Charles Kalil did not believe that claim when he first heard it. As information systems manager for the City of Garden Grove, CA, he had previously tried another wireless solution in the hopes of connecting the city's six fire stations, eight police substations and diverse other civic buildings -- only to be sorely disappointed. "What they promised us simply did not work," he recalled.

Kalil nonetheless decided to give 5G Wireless a limited test run, and allow the firm to make a quarter-mile Wi-Fi leap to connect two city buildings late last year. That worked fine, so he asked 5G to link up two new buildings that were just being added to his network, at a distance of two and a half miles. That connection achieved speeds of up to 3 megabits per second.

The next building was a two and a half mile jump with no line of sight, and again 5G achieved the same results. Then Kalil went for a four-mile hop, and when that one worked too, he figured it was time to give 5G the citywide contract. Today, Garden Grove has eight sites connected with Wi-Fi, and Kalil said he expects to eventually put 20 sites on the network.

Dix said the ability to expand 802.11 in this way opens up a range of potential markets for his firm, such as California's many marinas, or the ranches in the isolated areas of the state. His firm also is looking to land contracts with other municipalities where there is a need for high-speed connectivity at a low cost. "Because we are able to put on more subscribers per tower, we can pass that savings on to our users," said Dix.

That has, in fact, been Kalil's experience.

"Our police substations are leased buildings in commercial areas," he explained. "When we looked at trying to get DSL, the rates we would have gotten would not have been residential rates. They would have been business rates, which were quite expensive, and they would have been slower speeds. So we looked at cable, but cable does not have the penetration into the business areas."

Connectivity using T1 lines would have cost $200 a month per location, whereas for the 5G Wireless solutions he pays just a $30 monthly maintenance fee. "We are paying dialup prices, and getting the speed of two T1s," he said.

Analysts see considerable potential in this kind of expanded-Wi-Fi implementation.

"It makes Wi-Fi a much more useful solution," said Eddie Hold, a wireless analyst with research firm Current Analysis in Sterling, VA. "The problem with most Wi-Fi implementations right now is that they are really focused on a small hotspot. So if you can enhance it far beyond that distance, then the cost-effectiveness of it becomes much more attractive."

Hold said that a long-distance Wi-Fi solution could change considerably the nature of the Wi-Fi market.

"It is quite feasible that we are getting into a market where you will see people building out Wi-Fi in large residential areas, and at that point you have something that is potentially competitive to DSL," he said.

That is just the kind of future that Dix has in mind.

"I believe that 802.11 has not really seen its full potential yet," he said. "It is our belief that it is going to become an integral part of hauling three to ten miles without an great enhancements. That is happening right now."



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