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Motorola gaining coverage with "Canopy"

The company unveils equipment that uses unlicensed spectrum to wirelessly blast broadband Net access to hard-to-reach homes and businesses. The spectrum's free, but not perfect.

Motorola on Tuesday unveiled "Canopy," joining the growing number of companies building equipment that uses unlicensed spectrum to wirelessly blast broadband Internet access to hard-to-reach homes and businesses.

The Canopy system uses the 5GHz range of spectrum. Increasingly, this area of radio waves, made available for public use only recently, has been the choice for makers of similar kinds of "fixed wireless" equipment.

In a fixed-wireless system, broadband Web access is beamed from an antenna fixed onto a tower. The signals are sent to another antenna similar in shape to satellite TV dishes on a rooftop. Most fixed-wireless systems have been using spectrum that needs to be licensed from the government.

But equipment makers like Motorola; Western Multiplex, which recently merged with Proxim; and Alvarion have begun dabbling in the 5GHz range. It's free and can be used to create a powerful signal needed to deliver broadband access through the air for miles at a time. For instance, Canopy's equipment can serve an area with a radius of between two and 10 miles.

Freedom comes with a price, however. Because the spectrum is unlicensed, there are no requirements to muzzle a signal that's powerful enough to interfere with others, analysts say.

Yet, "unlicensed has more promise because the other spectrum costs so damn much," said Brad Baldwin, broadband technologies analyst at research company IDC.

To succeed, fixed-wireless equipment using the 5GHz band will have to do what earlier versions using the pricier airwaves could not: entice broadband providers to use it. Baldwin said "it hasn't been a banner year for fixed wireless," with providers like Sprint no longer adding new customers to its fixed-wireless service and AT&T Wireless selling its fixed-wireless business to Netro for "a song," about $45 million.

The newer efforts, using the 5GHz spectrum, are beginning to win some favor but mostly with the smaller Web providers that can't extend their networks by digging trenches to lay miles of fiber-optic cable, Baldwin said.

Though it was just unveiled Tuesday, about 45 Web providers are already using Canopy, said Tony Kobrinetz, vice president and general manager of Motorola's Canopy wireless broadband products.

Motorola "came in late to the market, and they looked like they did their homework well," said Tracy Wheatley, founder of Cascade Networks, which uses Canopy to serve about 300 customers in a community about 30 minutes north of Portland.