Wide-area unlicensed solutions approach ‘show me’ stage
Mention unlicensed spectrum to most government or first-responder communications officials, and the reaction almost always begins with an eye roll — the one that says, “You’ve got to be kidding,” and “Oh, no, not again,” in a single gesture without a word being spoken.
There are plenty of reasons for the skeptical response. Many governments feel like they were burned by the proliferation of “free” Wi-Fi-based systems promised by communications companies that either overpromised or underperformed in a number of areas. The complexities and unpredictable nature of unlicensed spectrum typically has scared government officials away from using such solutions for communications that are deemed important.
Moreover, using unlicensed spectrum has been difficult, because the lower power levels required in such airwaves limit the range of base stations. This typically means more base stations are needed to cover a given amount of area, and more base stations mean more complexity and maintenance.
However, at least two companies — TCM Mobile and xG Technology — are hoping to change this perception of unlicensed solutions by providing reliable, wide-area coverage with systems that are cost effective. For commercial applications, the biggest savings are that no spectrum has to be purchased and that both companies believe they will be able to sell their base stations for a fraction of the cost of base stations used in traditional cellular networks.
Two weeks ago, TCM Mobile announced it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Ganton Limited to deploy a $300 million commercial cellular VoIP system network in India. TCM Mobile already has a pilot network operating in Syracuse, N.Y., that provides access at 2.4 GHz — the hardware is Wi-Fi, but the software is proprietary to TCM Mobile — and uses 5.8 unlicensed wireless backhaul.
By leveraging VoIP, not having to pay for spectrum and using base stations that likely will cost less than $3000 apiece when in mass production, the solution “allows us … to enter the market aggressively,” TCM Mobile President Haim Yashar.
Florida-based xG Technology is offering a similarly compelling argument for networks based on its low-power xMAX technology. This week, the company announced that its tests with rural service provider Townes Tele-Communications are going well, with the unlicensed 900 MHz system realizing a range of 2.5 miles from a 100-foot tower and ranges of 4 to 5 miles from a 350-foot tower, xG Technology CTO Joe Bobier said.
In addition, handoffs between the base stations have been executed at highway speeds without a hitch, Bobier said.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people told me that handoffs were going to be a problem for us,” he said. “But it turned out that was easier than a lot of other things.”
In addition to the traditional, cellular-like base stations, xG is developing micro base stations that are designed to cover a residential block for $100 and mini base stations that would provide three or four times more coverage, Bobier said. And the low-power characteristic of the xMAX system is allowing the company to develop base stations that would be powered solely by solar energy, he said.
Of course, both companies still must prove the viability and reliability of their systems in the unlicensed environment, and these early deployments will be critical in that regard. If either or both can succeed, it will be interesting to see if capacity-strapped governments and enterprises attempt to leverage such solutions, particularly if the FCC decides to reserve the TV white spaces for unlicensed use.