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After Wi-Fi, Wider-Fi

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Forbes looks at the next wireless standard:

    This new standard is dubbed 802.16a by the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers, which disdains catchy names. Some are calling it Wi-Max, but a better tag might be Wider-Fi. Meanwhile, a rival group at IEEE is working on 802.20–a kind of Mobile-Fi that promises speedy links in cars and trains traveling at speeds that can exceed 120 miles an hour.

    “The ultimate vision is wireless broadband everywhere,” enthuses Sriram Viswanathan, who oversees wireless investments at Intel’s venture capital arm. “It could potentially be the biggest thing since the Internet itself.”

    ….The Federal Communications Commission is going all out to clear the way for longer-range wireless networks. Last month it began a proceeding to open up more airwaves for city-spanning wireless webs by loosening restrictions on spectrum now held by Sprint, WorldCom, the Catholic Church and universities. “The opportunity is monumental,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in announcing the push.

    Wider-Fi networks pose a grave threat to the cell phone industry, which aims to blanket the country with wireless Web access by upgrading networks to higher-speed 3G, or third-generation, technology. Backers of 3G grudgingly accept that Wi-Fi is much more effective at short ranges. Last month Verizon Wireless announced a plan to use Wi-Fi to supplement its voice and data network coverage, following similar moves by T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless.

    ….Wider-Fi also could give local phone companies and cable operators night sweats, allowing wireless Internet service providers to cheaply hook up homes at broadband speeds. The same Wider-Fi link could also replace a phone line, since the standard is engineered to provide landline voice quality.

    And Wider-Fi can slash the single biggest cost of deployment: access charges for linking a tiny hotspot to a local phone or cable network. A high-frequency version of Wider-Fi would allow entrepreneurs to blast a narrow, data-rich beam between antennas miles apart.

    ….The FCC’s Powell is staying neutral in the fight over whether to go all-unlicensed, working mainly to open up large chunks of radio spectrum for all comers. (Double the megahertz of spectrum a wireless network can use and you double its capacity.) Inspired by the success of Wi-Fi, the FCC plans to open up a huge swath for unlicensed use, a whopping 255 megahertz, bringing the unlicensed total to 664 megahertz. By comparison, the early version of Wi-Fi ran on just 83 megahertz. “That’s a carload of spectrum,” gushes Edmond Thomas, head of the FCC’s Office of Engineering & Technology.

    The FCC, traditionally swayed by incumbent broadcasters looking to shut the door on competition, is finally acting more interested in giving all sorts of technology access to the skies. Says the agency’s Thomas: “The last thing we ever want to do is pick specific technologies. We believe in the market doing that.”

Go here for a cool chart of how the wireless standards 3G, Wi-Fi, Wider-Fi, and Mobile-Fi compare.

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About Eric Olsen