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Seeing isn't believing for fixed wireless

Providers of the wireless Web technology say they have the answer to the line-of-site problem faced by people using rooftop antennas for high-speed Internet.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--People who get Internet access delivered through the air instead of through a cable or telephone line know the problem well: They lose the service if their rooftop's antenna isn't in the line of sight of a main antenna miles away.

But a new generation of equipment is taking the "line of sight" requirement out of the equation. Foliage, stucco walls, not even a cookie sheet can stand in the way of Net access now, says one provider of the new technology.

This news is piquing interest in what is known as fixed wireless, a little-used method to deliver high-speed Internet access to homes. The service is available for about $45 a month and is mostly used by people living in rural areas where DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable-modem Internet access is unavailable.

Unlike DSL, which delivers Net access through telephone lines, and cable modems, which couple Internet access with cable TV service, 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. But if a neighbor grows a rooftop garden that blocks the antenna's line of sight, Net access is cut off.

The new technology, however, uses an antenna that compresses the radio waves carrying Web access into a smaller, more precise beam. The result is a system that can blast a signal through foliage or even a stucco wall. The systems require antennas to be only about 50 to 100 feet aboveground.

During a recent demonstration in San Jose, Calif., Matt Peters, director of systems at Iospan Wireless, showed how these systems could power signals through a metal cookie sheet he put in front of an indoor antenna.

"The cookie sheet would have killed any other system," Peters said.

These new antennas can be self-installed, instead of needing a team of engineers to angle the antennas correctly, and they can be installed inside a home, according to Bob Powell, director of product management for Iospan Wireless.

The company announced this week that Emaar Properties, located in the Middle East, would use its equipment in a pilot project.

The lineup of players
Iospan Wireless is one of a number of companies now offering "non-line of sight" systems. Another example is NextNet, which claims to be the first to offer these systems in the United States.

NextNet Vice President Charles Riggle said about 130 people in Pocahontas, Iowa, have been using its technology since early December to get broadband Internet access. Other companies with non-line-of-sight products include Netro, which on Tuesday said it paid about $45 million in cash and stock for AT&T Wireless Services' fixed-wireless assets--gear that also doesn't require line of sight.

Most of these new companies are trying to sell their equipment to broadband providers, many still balking at the prospect, according to Lindsay Schroth, an analyst at The Yankee Group. She expects the reluctance to remain for at least another year, especially because the companies making these new products are young and still rely on funding.

For a time, Sprint was using the gear to deliver broadband service to customers in little more than a dozen markets. But this fall, the company stopped installing the systems, complaining that the technology wasn't mature enough to rely on, according to Schroth.

However, Sprint's chief technology adviser, Khurram P. Sheikh, says the company is using some of the new equipment on a trial basis in Montreal, Houston and San Jose, Calif. No further details were given.

"Some people think fixed wireless is dead, but I don't think so," Schroth said. "It is a ways away, though."