60-Mile Signal in San Francisco

By Eric Griffith

March 27, 2007

This isn't a contest: Intel is testing software and antennas to eventually bring long-range 802.11 to under-developed nations.

Wi-Fi signals going long distances are nothing new -- many contests have been held to see how far the signals can be extended, year after year. But this one isn't a contest: Intel has set up a Wi-Fi link in downtown San Francisco that it claims is capable of reaching 60 miles (100 kilometers).

ZDNet reports that the link extends from the company's labs in the downtown area (at the University of California at Berkeley Space Science Lab) all the way to Grizzly Peak Boulevard, which is 1.5 miles away. They did this with a standard access point with modified software and a dish receiver antenna.

Intel has also developed a "steerable antenna" (with some tech developed at the State University in Russia; it and U of C both have Intel facilities) that can steer a Wi-Fi signal around obstacles like buildings and trees. These are directed signals -- it's not omni-directional. The steerable antenna on a tower would, in theory, be immune to being knocked out of alignment.

So when can we expect to get this technology in a product? We probably can't. Will it be put to use in citywide Wi-Fi like EarthLink wants to do right there in San Francisco? Definitely not.

Besides the fact that this first attempt at a steerable antenna was made of more wood and wires than the fake panels behind the Millennium Falcon's cockpit, Intel is reserving the technology for emerging markets. Intel has plans to serve such areas with its Classmate PC -- a $300 laptop program with the same goal as the One Laptop Per Child program -- to get kids computing, even those in remote villages with no wired infrastructure, let alone wireless.

Eventually, a Wi-Fi signal could be bounced to a village and the smart antennas could steer the signal to villagers. The theory is that towers with Wi-Fi antennas might cost significantly less than doing the same thing with WiMax or other existing long-distance wireless technology. It also avoids the need for licensing spectrum, since Wi-Fi runs on globally unlicensed radio frequencies.

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