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Mobile

Can your Net access travel through walls?

Sprint PCS plans to test a new, wireless Internet service that could be a competitor to DSL or cable Net access--if the trials are successful.

Sprint PCS is testing a new, wireless Internet service that the company says could be a competitor to digital subscriber line or cable Net access--if the trials are successful.

The technology aims to improve upon "fixed wireless," a service that can deliver high-speed wireless Internet access to homes and businesses.

Fixed wireless works by directing Internet access from an underground fiber-optic cable to an antenna on a 1,000-foot-high tower, which then directs the signal through the air to rooftop antennas. But if a neighbor grows a rooftop garden that blocks the antenna's line of sight, Net access is cut off.

The new technology Sprint is testing uses an antenna that compresses the radio waves into a smaller, more precise beam. The result is a "non-line-of-sight wireless" system that can blast a signal through trees or even a stucco wall.

Sprint says that the tests in Houston and Montreal are among the largest yet for non-line-of-sight wireless access by any U.S. Web service provider. However, tests are limited, as the economic downturn and competitive challenges have put a serious damper on research and development budgets.

"We are not putting a lot of money into this," Sprint Vice President Cameron Rejali said of the tests. "Our budgets are very, very tight, and we don't intend to spend very much capital on this at all."

Tests will be completed in July, Rajali said, but Sprint doesn't expect to launch services immediately afterward.

The company is using equipment from start-ups Navini Networks and IPWireless in the trials.

Although it may seem a leap of faith to test start-up technology for a network that could cost up to $250 million to build, Sprint said that larger equipment makers have yet to dive in to make a non-line-of-sight fixed-wireless product. To date, only handset maker Ericsson has publicly announced plans to develop these types of products and services.

"We would want some major vendors in there before moving forward," Rejali said. "These start-ups realize we need some bigger players to come in."

Most of the companies making such equipment are start-ups. Another example is NextNet Wireless, which claims to be the first to offer these systems in the United States. NextNet Vice President Charles Riggle said about 130 people in Pocahontas, Iowa, have been using its technology since early December for broadband Internet access.

Other companies with non-line-of-sight products include Netro, which paid about $45 million in cash and stock for AT&T Wireless fixed-wireless assets--technology that also doesn't require line of sight.

A Netro representative said the company has spent the last few months "re-engineering" the equipment it bought from AT&T Wireless so it can work anywhere in the world, and plans to offer it for sale "soon."

AT&T Wireless used the equipment during its since aborted "Project Angel." There were 47,000 subscribers in 10 states before the AT&T Wireless sale. The customers were "weaned off" the service and steered toward other companies, according to AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi.