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Mobile

Can Unlicensed Spectrum Solve Rural Broadband?

Rural carrier Townes Tele-Communications Inc. is conducting the first pilot test of a new wireless system designed to let rural carriers use unlicensed spectrum to offer mobile and fixed voice, text and, ultimately, broadband data service.

A technology from xG Technology Inc. called xMax will be initially deployed in Lewisville, Ark., as part of a test to gain Rural Utilities Service (RUS) certification, but Townes also plans to use the system in many of its other rural properties in Texas, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Arkansas, Missouri and Florida. (See New Services Set for Rural Carrier Rescue.)

Gaining RUS certification would allow Townes to apply for federal funding of the xMax deployment as part of the effort to increase rural broadband service. The technology might also fit into what many see as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's increasing focus on wireless options for broadband.

Using unlicensed spectrum is problematic in urban areas because of common interference from many different sources, including baby monitors, garage door openers and cordless telephones, but in sparsely populated rural areas, that spectrum represents a cost-effective way of serving homes that can't easily be reached by fiber. The xMax systems uses a cognitive radio that constantly samples the airwaves to identify and use the best channel and band available at any given second.

Townes serves many areas where its DSL offering cannot deliver broadband because customers are more than three miles from not just a central office but a remote access point, says Larry Townes, chairman and CEO of Townes Tele-Communications. It is cost-prohibitive to put fiber optic cable in to each of those rural dwellings.

"For those folks, dial-up is still the only option," Townes says.

When Townes turns up the xMax system next month in Lewisville, it will be able to offer voice and text on the system, with data service to be trialed in August and commercially available from xG in 2012. If the pilot goes well, RUS certification could follow in six months.

xG is also hoping to convince the FCC to allow higher power levels for future xMax systems, to expand the range of customers that a rural telco could reach from a 100-foot tower, says George Schmitt, a wireless industry veteran and now a member of xG's board of directors. Schmitt, who was part of the original cellular effort at AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and then Pacific Telesis, has headed an array of companies including e.spire communications and, before that, led OmniPoint and PCS Prime, both of which were acquired by larger wireless operations.

"Cognitive radios can deliver broadband over a large amount of territory and can work in multiple spectrums -- to me this is the way the world is going to have to go so there is enough spectrum to go around," Schmitt says. "Verizon and AT&T will take a long time before they decide to do cognitive radio. For small telephone companies that sold spectrum off or had it taken away from them in the '80s and '90s -- this will give them a chance to get back in the game and solve the rural broadband problem. "

Current Part 15 rules for 900MHz spectrum have a power limit of one watt -- for every two watts of power, it is possible to more than double the distance one 100-foot base station would cover, Schmitt says.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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