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Wi-Fi stretches its boundaries

Proxim is the latest company to sell high-powered networks that create wireless Internet access far behind the 300-foot-radius zone Wi-Fi typically achieves.

Communications equipment maker Proxim became the latest company to sell high-powered Wi-Fi networks that travel long distances, essentially providing buyers with an "ISP in a box," the company's Chief Executive, Jonathan Zakin, said this week.

These versions of wireless networks using the Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, standard create a wireless zone of up to 12 miles long, far beyond the usual 300-foot-radius range that Wi-Fi typically achieves, Zakin said.

Overkill for use inside a home, where most Wi-Fi networks are now found, the long-range Wi-Fi gear from Proxim and others is meant for small Web service providers. It lets them beam long-range signals outside, particularly to sell broadband access in rural areas where DSL (digital subscriber lines) or cable broadband service haven't reached, Zakin said.

Proxim, which sells a third of the world's Wi-Fi equipment, is the largest company yet to enter the market selling long-range Wi-Fi equipment. Others with uber-Wi-Fi networks include cordless-phone maker Engenius and networking companies Linksys and D-Link. These companies said they've had success peddling the gear to Web providers that are even smaller than Proxim's customers.

A bigger fish than Proxim is around the corner: Chipmaker Intel is also interested in entering the market, according to Kurt Sehnert, Intel's mobile platform group manager. Intel will likely choose to partner with someone already making the equipment, rather than develop its own, he said.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaking giant, which recently announced a wireless strategy, is also readying a PC card modem, code-named Calexico. The card will contain the first Wi-Fi chips made by Intel and is expected to appear in notebook computers early next year.

Proxim's gear is already being used by likes of Mile High Online in Denver and Prairie Inet in West Des Moines, Iowa. The companies send broadband access to homes and business in their hard to reach areas, Zakin said.

The Proxim product can achieve long distances because the company boosted the power inside its access points--the radios that create the network. It also added additional antennas to the access points so signals could be beamed directly to a home, rather than creating a cloud of access.

Proxim's product, priced from about $2,000 to $6,000, will include all the equipment necessary to become a small-scale network provider. The price differs depending on the quality of equipment and add-ons that a buyer may want. Each kit can serve about 250 customers.

By pushing Wi-Fi networks for outdoor use, Proxim and others are joining a new and growing market.

A cellular technology called w-CDMA (wideband code division multiple access) sends broadband access to rural areas, including the entire island of Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago.

Usually, w-CDMA signals travel all over, bouncing off trees or buildings. The signals themselves can get so misdirected they actually interfere with each other as they find their way to a handset or cellular base station's antenna, said Jon Hambidge, senior director of marketing for IPWireless, one of the companies that uses the technology. But IPWireless recombines the signals to decrease the usual number of dropped calls or suddenly ended Web sessions, which result from the misdirected signals, Hambidge said.

Another outdoor wireless technology vying for the rural market of Wi-Fi wireless service is MMDS (Multipoint Microwave Distribution System). Sprint PCS is using the technology to deliver broadband access to homes in the Houston area on a trial basis. Unlike Wi-Fi, MMDS uses licensed spectrum; the two technologies also use different types of modems from one another. The Sprint PCS trial is generating some interest in the technology among other Internet service providers.

There is also proprietary equipment for the market. Wireless ISP Aerie Networks of Denver uses equipment to run a high-speed wireless Web network in some areas of the country. Its patented equipment consists of radio receivers mounted to utility poles that shower an area with Internet access.