Let’s start off by clearing the slate and understanding that I am not bashing the WiMAX Forum in this discussion. I think the WiMAX Forum has done nothing short of an amazing job – not perfect by any stretch of the imagination – but any group that can manage to get most of the active players in an industry to work together deserves some applause in my book. I am not directly addressing the technology even though the concept is not what I would have done – but then I am not always right either. What I am concerned about is the vision – or lack thereof.

In my daily jog around the Internet (I have to keep in shape somehow) I ran across an article that projected the shift in population from rural to metropolitan as reaching a critical point in the next five years. I had heard about this some years ago so I decided to do a little more reading on the subject and become more familiar with these projections.

In study after study the realization is that people in droves are abandoning the rural areas to move to the urban areas in search of jobs, infrastructure, culture with probably each individual having their own reasons. This holds true everywhere I could find credible data.

The world is steadily becoming more urban, as people move to cities and towns in search of employment, educational opportunities and higher standards of living. Some are driven away from land that, for whatever reason, can no longer support them. By the year 2005, urban areas are expected to be home to more than half of the world’s people.

Already 74 per cent of Latin American and Caribbean populations live in urban areas, as do 73 per cent of people in Europe, and more than 75 per cent of people in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. In both Africa and Asia, urban dwellers represent about a third of the total populations. However, there are significant variations between individual countries. In Africa, for example, more than 50 per cent of the populations of Algeria, South Africa and Tunisia reside in urban areas.

The above quotation was taken from an article located here:

The challenges this will present are enormous. Leaving aside everything else, I thought this would impact how communications will be served to this steadily increasing group.

If we take any large city, New York, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, etc we find that the density per square mile mandates that an enormous amounts of connectivity needs to be provides to a relatively small area. We can also be assured that this demand will significantly increase for the foreseeable future. At the same time the demand seems to be rising at a faster rate than the necessary infrastructure can be built.

Take New York City as an example. It is my understanding that it is a minimum of three years from concept to finished deployment for a fiber project of any size to be completed there. From the initial proposal, through the planning, budgeting, engineering studies, permitting process and continuing right through the actual construction this is a very expensive and time consuming effort. During that same three-year period the demand for more communications infrastructure have increased and the local population is not being adequately serviced.

What does this have to do with WiMAX? The reality is that the WiMAX standard has been designed to provide relatively small amounts of data for reasonably long distances – exactly what we don’t need in the above areas. As metropolitan populations increase their demand for connectivity and should the trend toward urbanization continues who the heck is the WiMAX Forum targeting as their intended market, the rural areas? I would suggest that based on the migration patterns presented above that is a losing proposition.

Instead, what is needed is a MAN standard that allows for huge amounts of data to be transported across relatively short distances coupled with the ability to be put in place very quickly. In addition, this infrastructure needs to be able to support a nearly infinite amount of radios with next to no degradation from interference.

The reality is that this is the overwhelming portion of the market, the one segment that seems to be being ignored by the wireless manufacturers and the one that presents the biggest challenge along with the biggest rewards.

To put this in perspective, the city of Sao Paulo has an estimated population of 27 million people and growing. The needs of a population base this size for a reliable communication infrastructure is astronomical. The ability of any traditional telecommunications provider to keep up with this ever-increasing demand has reached a point where the copper/fiber deployments cannot be deployed in a time frame consistent with the level of population growth as I mentioned in my example citing New York City above.

There is one more factor that enters into this discussion, cost. If we look at the real cost, including labor, to deploy a fiber network we find that cost to range anywhere from a low of roughly $3K/mile for rural areas that have extremely low labors rates to a high of $400K/mile in Manhattan.

That’s one heck of a range.

At what point does it become economically feasible to deploy wireless technology instead of fiber? Certainly this number would depend on the location, labor rates, demand along with a number of other factors. However, we can easily see if these ultra high-speed radios had a retail sale price of $10/each the adoption would be astronomical.

So, what are the applicable technologies we might apply to this need? Certainly the millimeter wave bands could be employed and show some serious promise as does Ultra Wide Band. In locations where the weather conditions permit Free Space Optics could allow for even more capacity to be added as radio and FSO could coexist in the same environment without degrading each other’s performance.

Amazingly, these technologies are reasonably inexpensive to produce once a critical mass is reached.

If we take millimeter wave as an example we find that if the production demands exceeded 10,000 radios per month we would see a drop in prices that would bring these radios in line with the least expensive fiber deployments we can cite. If the number was then raised to 100,000 radios per month we would see prices that would near the cost of telephone cable per mile. Continuing forward at the production levels of 1,000,000 per month we would now see prices not quite as low as the current WiFi levels but close enough that nobody would care.

How about UWB as a comparison? The projections are that the first generation of UWB to be released to the public will initially be mass-produced in such quantities for use in PAN (Personal Area Networks) so as to make the introductory price in the sub-$20 range. These devices have extremely low power output (as mandated by the FCC) but with the use of relatively high gain external antennas we might expect to see their range increased to levels that would allow metropolitan deployments in a mesh style configuration without adding too much self interference into the area. Imagine, we could quite easily produce near 1GHz mesh nodes for a under $200/each!

Finally, we look at Free Space Optics as a potential technology. Some of the early attempts to harness this technology produced some rather awkward devices that were capable of gigabit speeds across reasonable distances. One of the drawbacks to this technology was the incredibly high cost coupled with restrictions mandated by weather patterns that prevented the large scale adoption of this technology. Airfiber was one of the companies that manufactured this equipment and had refined their designs to a point where the equipment was both reliable along with desirable. But from a personal perspective the design used by them were much too large and expensive to be of practical use.

Things have come a long way in the last few years. I am in regular contact with someone who is now ramping up a manufacturing base to produce modified 10Mbps full duplex Ronja FSO equipment inexpensively. There is also a design currently on the test bench that can deliver 100Mbps full duplex connectivity but this is still a long way from production.

I believe this will be one of the technology adopted especially in areas that make wireless (RF) illegal. If the invisible spectrum was employed as opposed to visible light this technology becomes almost impossible to trace making it nearly invulnerable to restriction. I can also see this as being used to cross international borders skirting the insane regulations that tend to crop up.

The question isn’t if this will happen but when. The realization is that one of these days a group of savvy investors are going to embrace the right group of engineers and realize that this vision is necessary to make the future of communications come together. I look forward to that day as being the day when the current telecommunications industry gets put out to pasture and becomes looked upon as the dinosaur that it is. That day is coming probably much faster than many of us expect but as sure as the demand is outstripping the supply innovation will answer the need.

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