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Delivering wireless access

Modem maker Hybrid Networks signs on to start-up Warp Drive's effort to offer high-speed Net access over low-power television frequencies.

Modem maker Hybrid Networks today teamed with start-up Warp Drive Networks in an ambitious plan to offer high-speed Net access over low-power television frequencies by October 1.

San Jose, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Diego will be the beneficiaries of the rollout, which steps up the battle to provide high-speed Net access. This time, the little-known Warp Drive will rely on UHF frequencies to transmit data to users' PCs. It battles behemoths such as Pacific Bell and Tele-Communications Incorporated, which provide competing access services.

Hybrid Networks, whose investors include AT&T Ventures, Sequoia Capital, and Accel Partners, among others, is providing technology for a modem/router product to help deliver the service.

Despite its newcomer status, Warp Drive promises faster and cheaper installation than ISDN, contends Vice President Bruce Lichorowic. He estimated that up-front costs for 128-kbps service would be about $500 (largely for a router/modem), plus $150 a month for unlimited access. According to Lichorowic, the service can be turned on almost immediately; many ISDN users face installation delays.

The service scales all the way up to 27 Mbps, another benefit. "I haven't even priced that yet," Lichorowic says.

The company plans to launch commercial service on June 1 in the San Jose and Seattle areas, followed by Los Angeles Portland and San Diego. It also is laying the groundwork for an Eastern United States expansion. The company's San Jose and Seattle rollouts have been announced, but those for the other cities have not.

Warp Drive has leased the TV channel frequency of KDD-TV, Channel 22, in San Jose, and currently is negotiating with other TV stations for their low-power bandwidth. It plans to rely on microwave technology in Seattle.

Telecommunications carriers and cable TV companies, as well as start-ups such as Warp Drive, are battling to meet surging demand for high-speed Net access.

The cable industry's Net access is ramping up after getting off to a slow start. ISDN has been dogged by complains about service, but many telcos are working out the bugs. Another promising technology called ADSL remains largely in the testing stages.

That leaves the door open for wireless technologies such as the one Warp Drive offers, company executives say. But analysts say such companies face an uphill battle because of the marketing clout and brand recognition telcos and cable TV providers enjoy.