Earlier this year, we started receiving press releases about a company called Broadband Central, which is deploying a Wi-Fi system for fixed broadband wireless access. We've written before about wireless broadband access (see "Broadband Anywhere: The Extended Broadband Home" (http://www.broadbandhomecentral.com/report/backissues/Report0308_4.html)) and about using Wi-Fi (802.11) for this purpose (see "Afitel - Wi-Fi in Zamora" (http://www.broadbandhomecentral.com/report/backissues/Report0306_5.html#link5d)).
We are very bullish about the future of broadband wireless, especially as technologies for mobile wireless broadband are deployed. While Wi-Fi is great for local area networking, we think it's questionable for broadband access. So we were intrigued by Broadband Central's claims that it was moving rapidly to deploy "proprietary wireless technology" to create "Blue Zones" providing "wireless high speed internet at the price of dial-up" and had now "doubled the size of its planned Blue Zone deployment to 22 states."
When we looked at the Broadband Central web site, we found some "facts" that seemed very questionable. Their "High Speed Access" page describes Broadband Central's "Basic" service with a speed of "128K up/down" as being "10 times faster" than dial-up. Their "Broadband Comparison Chart" describes "cable modem" as "symetrical" with a speed of "128Kbps - 768Kbps" while "wireless" is described as having a speed of "256Kbps - 11Mbps". These comparisons, which imply that Wi-Fi based broadband access is faster than cable modems, made us skeptical of all Broadband Central's claims.
We contacted their press representatives, mentioned our concerns about their website, and tried to set up an interview. Some time went by before we finally managed to talk earlier this month with Bart Saxey (their new President, who joined in July) and Randy Conklin (Director of Network Operations and co-founder). We were somewhat reassured by the interview, but still have serious doubts about this venture.
When we questioned their claims of range and speed, Randy told us that their proprietary technology was based on a "patented circular-polarized antenna developed by Virginia Tech" to which they had the "exclusive rights." Randy said this design reduces multipath distortion and permits better range and data rates than conventional design. They use multiple antennas within a cell location. Their base station (they call it a Control Access Unit or CAU) is typically mounted on top of a home in the served area, and is typically 45 to 50 feet above ground level. CAUs are sited to create half-mile-radius cells.
Their site also states that "Broadband Centralís Blue Zone focuses on QoS (Quality of Service) insuring that each subscriber gets the amount of bandwidth they have ordered". QoS is indeed an important characteristic and we asked how they could support it over 802.11b. We didn't really learn the answer, however.
We discussed backhaul from the CAUs, and were told that they have a T-1 line connected to each - "we currently have 200 live T-1s" in the Greater Salt Lake area. They said they were working on wireless backhaul to reduce the cost, and would create wireless "red zones" to interconnect the blue zones, again using unlicensed spectrum.
The customer site uses CPE of Broadband Central's design. This integrates the antenna and electronics in a single unit; it is mounted outside the home and pointed to the nearest CAU.
Broadband Central charges a $150 installation fee, which includes the equipment, installation and the first month's cost. After that, users pay from $19.95/month for 128 Kbps symmetrical service to $59.95/month for 1 Mbps.
We asked a lot of questions about the underlying economics of their business. They said their Blue Zones are based on a partnership model "similar to an REIT or an oil partnership -- it's a financial relationship with accredited investors who get a share of the net income."
But they were unwilling to disclose any of their costs, the number of cell sites, or the number of subscribers: "We'll disclose the number of subscribers when we're number one." They said that each installation cost them $40 in labor, which seems low compared to other estimates of "truck rolls." They get six installs in eight hours, which includes pulling CAT5 through the wall.
So we found it hard to form a judgment on Broadband Central and their technology. They were unwilling to discuss the business economics, and did not provide enough information to convince us that their technology could overcome the issues we raised in using Wi-Fi for broadband access. What we heard seemed plausible, but we'll remain skeptical until we get answers to the hard questions.