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BellSouth snips wires in Florida

The telephone and broadband provider says it's testing a powerful wireless network it believes can help bridge the nation's digital divide.

BellSouth said Monday that it began testing a powerful wireless network it believes can help bridge the nation's digital divide.

The telephone and broadband provider will use "fixed wireless" equipment to deliver high-speed Web access to 100 customers in Daytona, Fla., for the next three months, according to a BellSouth representative. The trial run is a crucial step before a full-scale launch.

Verizon Communications and Sprint PCS are testing similar so-called fixed wireless equipment, which can wirelessly deliver 1.5mbps of Web access up to 20 miles at a time.

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. Newer generations of fixed wireless technology, which BellSouth and others are testing, use an antenna that compresses the radio waves into a smaller, more precise beam. The result is a system that can blast a signal through trees or even a stucco wall. The first versions of fixed wireless networks were "line of sight." If a neighbor were to grow a rooftop garden that blocked the antenna's line of sight, for example, Net access would be cut off.

"The fact that someone has come up with non-line-of-sight solutions" has helped spur interest, Verizon Communications spokesman Mark Marchand said. "It's helped move (fixed wireless technology) from the lab to the field."

Some high-speed Web providers think fixed wireless is a more cost-effective way to expand broadband to rural areas, where wired networks like digital subscriber lines (DSL) and cable broadband Web access cost too much to build.

But so far, none of the carriers have gone beyond test trials of the gear. Verizon is testing a fixed wireless network in Fairfax, Va., and may do a trial run in Baltimore, using equipment from Beam Reach Systems, Marchand said.

Sprint PCS is doing a trial run of a fixed wireless network in both Houston and Montreal, a representative said. The company is using equipment from start-ups Navini Networks and IPWireless.