TowerStream: Unwired in the City

NEW YORK -- The packed conference room at Light Reading Live's first ever show on the WiMax metropolitan area network standard today attests to the huge buzz around this technology.

But what will WiMax networks look like when the radios are actually deployed in the wild, sometime towards the end of 2005 or -- as seems more likely now -- in early 2006? (See Wise Words on WiMax.)

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But one guy who does have more of a clue than most is Jeff Thompson, founder, president, COO, and closet topiary expert [ed. note: okay, okay, we made that last one up] at four-year-old fixed-wireless network operator, TowerStream Corp.

Thompson was on hand this morning at the W Hotel in Manhattan to talk about life as a succesful-ish fixed-wireless operator in a pre-WiMax world.

The firm currently operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and -- yes! -- poor, little Rhode Island. Services in Oakland and San Francisco are planned soon.

Using pre-WiMax kit mainly sourced from Aperto Networks, TowerStream typically offers wireless T1-like (1.5 Mbit/s) services over 5.8GHz unlicensed spectrum.

Despite the abundance of such free bandwidth available for such services at the moment, Thompson says it's best to err on the side of caution when dealing with what is -- in the end -- a finite resource.

"Treat it like gold," he advises. When WiMax does come online, there will doubtless be plenty more talk about potential interference between such services.

TowerStream's biggest claim to fame is probably its installation on the Empire State Building. Thompson says that more typical deployments tend to have a range of three to six miles and can support more than 30 T1 business customers per sector.

Although the firm does have some non-line-of-sight deployments, it usually tries to get high -- wirelessly speaking -- to get line-of-sight.

"Trees are the enemy in this business, no matter what you do," says Thompson.

Eventually, he says, the company hopes to look beyond the business market and move down the "wireless pyramid" to offer services to consumers as well.

"We think that we could cover over 200,000 residential customers in New York with 20 to 25 base stations."

Thompson expects that the advent of 802.16e and lower-priced mobile products will bring WiMax to the masses. But mobile WiMax is highly unlikely to arrive on the market before mid-2006.

For the moment, Thompson says, TowerStream has nearly 1,000 customers and has been in profit since June of 2004. "We've been building up a cash reserve, but we might spend some of that this year."

Thompson says he isn't too concerned about increased competition from new startup wireless operators. "There could be 10 TowerStreams in New York City, and we'd probably never really run into them. When it really comes down to it, we're competing with Verizon... Our competition is the RBOCs."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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