Monday, August 06, 2007

AT&T rolls out WiMAX in Alaska -- could it be harbinger of broad-based fixed wireless expansion?

As part of its "commitment to broadband innovation," AT&T announced today it is deploying fixed terrestrial wireless broadband service in Alaska this year, starting in the Juneau area. Throughout the U.S, AT&T says it has deployed 22 fixed terrestrial wireless trials and "limited deployments" in U.S. communities to date, of which eight ended up as "active commercial deployments." According to AT&T's news release:

The new service uses WiMAX wireless technology, which enables delivery of broadband services to homes and small businesses with speeds that are similar to landline technologies such as DSL. With a range of up to several miles from a central tower, WiMAX technology is emerging as an alternative broadband solution for a range of locations where deployment of landline-based technologies is impractical or impossible.

Initial deployments of WiMAX technology in Alaska will be used to provide portable wireless broadband for home and business-based access, enabling users to plug in to the service at multiple home or work locations within the service's range. As mobile WiMAX technology advances, the company will evaluate options to enable additional roaming and mobility service options for customers.

While comparing throughput speeds to DSL, AT&T did not provide actual numbers. The company appears to be pricing the wireless service similarly to DSL, stating in the news release that monthly rates start at $19.95.

This announcement out of Alaska could have implications for the lower 48 states. While apparently the company is still working out the bugs, it appears probable AT&T could ramp up its fixed terrestrial wireless broadband in order to give it another alternative to offer broadband to residential customers. AT&T clearly needs another delivery option to bring broadband to residential and home office customers outside of the limited urban areas where it's deploying its new hybrid fiber and copper U-Verse broadband IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) infrastructure.

Weak DSL signals degrade once they travel more than 14,000 feet from an AT&T central office and the company has reportedly stopped installing additional remote terminals to boost DSL beyond the 14,000 foot limit. That means those who don't already get AT&T's DSL aren't likely to be offered it in the future.

Beyond the 14,000 foot DSL limit, I suspect AT&T is finding there's not as much demand as it would like for its repackaged satellite Internet service, WildBlue. That's hardly surprising given customers are locked into a one year contract for slow throughput, high latency, steep upfront costs and a poor overall value compared to other broadband technologies.

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