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US West looks for wireless safety net

The company faces technical difficulties in bringing many of its customers a broadband Internet, and now is trying out wireless Net access as a high-speed option.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
In the middle of New Mexico, high-speed Internet access is little more than a distant dream for most.

To solve this problem, US West is looking to go wireless. The company has run into problems in bringing many of its customers broadband Internet access, and is now stepping ahead of its Baby Bell brethren in trying out wireless Net access as a high-speed option.

The company isn't yet making any promises. The technology is new, and US West is just starting trials of a Qualcomm-built access system, scheduled for April.

"We're experimenting to see if it's the right technology to use," said Wayne Leuck, vice president of engineering for the telco's wireless division.

But if the technology proves stable and cheap enough--a prospect that looks promising, Leuck said--US West may adopt a wireless Net access program to reach those places its broadband telephone lines can't.

Geography pushes technology
The company has been put on the spot by a combination of geography and limitations in high-speed Internet technology.

Telephone companies' leading high-speed Internet option for consumers is asynchronous digital subscriber line, or ADSL. With a relatively simple upgrade to existing telephone lines, ADSL allows homes to use a high-speed Net connection and traditional telephone service simultaneously.

But this technology has its limitations. If a house or office is more than three miles away from the phone company's central office, the signal on a phone line typically degrades too much for the DSL technology to work effectively.

That's not much of a problem in big cities, where the phone companies scatter their central offices every few miles. But in the broad expanses served by US West, across states like New Mexico, Colorado or Utah, this leaves many customers out of the high-speed loop.

Meanwhile, businesses, ISPs, and policy makers are pressuring telephone companies to expand their broadband services.

Legislators from rural states are pushing the phone companies to roll out their own services, and asking regulators to ease up on the telcos to make this possible. Some regulators are turning their attention to the issue.

In a report to Congress late last month, the Federal Communications Commission said that between cable, wireless, and telephone line service, rural areas would not be shut out of the broadband Internet. But the commission will continue to watch the issue closely, it said.

"From reports I've heard, consumers don't have any broadband access in New Mexico," said Commissioner Gloria Tristani said at last month's commission meeting. "Based on [our] report, I don't know if there are other states that are as unfortunate as New Mexico in not having broadband services available."

Wireless in the wings

Some ISPs in New Mexico and other rural areas already are going around US West's service with their own wireless options.

But beginning in April, a handful of US West employees will be testing a Qualcomm wireless Net access system in a few places across the company's service area.

Based on CDMA digital phone technology, the system can allow up to 1.8 megabytes per second of download speed. But this bandwidth must be split up between all the users on any given digital "node." Thus, if six people all tried to download a large file at once, they could wind up with only 300 kilobytes per second each.

Part of the trials will be to figure out how many users a single node can support, without driving people back down to dial-up access speeds, Leuck noted. "We're trying to figure out whether the technology is mature enough to support what we want to do," he said.

The company is optimistic, he said. A wireless infrastructure has advantages other than its reach, including being relatively quick to install and move. The price for users may wind up being cheaper than other high-speed alternatives, he added.

The company to date has made no service guarantees, however. Qualcomm is just one of 26 companies offering slightly different products, and the company could wind up going with one of the others if it proves more efficient.

"Right now we're just trialing around to see if it's the right technology," Leuck said. "We have no commitments to buy wireless from anyone."

Other non-wireless options also remain open.

US West is one of the founding members of a lobbying group hoping to persuade policy makers to open cable TV lines to all ISPs. If that effort proves successful--still a dim hope today--US West could take advantage of the local cable infrastructure instead of taking to the airwaves.

Engineers are also making advances in extending the distance limits of DSL technology, potentially allowing the company to stick with its existing copper phone lines for more customers. "If we can fix [the distance problem] on copper we may stay with that," Leuck said.

The Qualcomm trials do not yet have a set date for completion, the engineer said. The company said that it will not have a wireless Net access service available for mass market for some time, he added.