After spending years working on microwave systems for telephone service providers, Paul Ayars knows all about wireless technology. The 66-year-old telecommunications engineer is putting his experience to good use on a fixed wireless broadband service at his company, Simpson Strong-Tie Co. Inc., a Dublin, Calif.-based construction component maker.
But in contrast with the numerous vendors, analysts and industry experts who say fixed wireless is already stable and secure enough to serve as a primary method of connectivity, Ayars' company is only using the service during an "emergency" situation: when a T1 goes down.
Despite using fixed wireless service for about two years without any failures, and learning first hand that the performance rivals that of a T1, Ayars admitted that when it comes to mission-critical connectivity, the thought of moving away from a wire is daunting.
"I don't know if we would want to do that for a variety of reasons," Ayars said, noting the relative newness of the technology, and the uncertainty that comes with being an early adopter. "Because we have a DS3 in our office, which will accommodate 26 T1s, there's no reason why we wouldn't continue to use that."
An ever-growing number of fixed wireless service providers are facing the same challenge. But according to the providers, not only can they offer service that's as fast and reliable as a T1, they can also do so for a fraction of the cost.
In the beginning
Simpson Strong-Tie began evaluating fixed wireless services just more than two years ago, when it was searching for a way to keep its California offices in synch in the event of a T1 failure.
It quickly chose Fremont, Calif.-based NextWeb Inc. for several reasons. First and foremost, it was available. To receive service, said Eric Warren, NextWeb's director of marketing, a customer's site must be located within 10 miles of one of its transmission towers, have a clear line of sight to the tower, and not be blocked by terrain, trees or tall buildings.
"If that's all good, we put an antenna up on the customer's roof and run cable down to the server room," Warren said. Once the line of sight check is completed, he said, 85% to 90% of customer implementations are successful -- unexpected reception problems do thwart some installations.
The service was also surprisingly affordable. NextWeb's basic 384 Kbps commercial service starts at $129 per month, while its high-end "Super T" 2 Mbps offering goes for $479. Warren noted that T1s are often much more expensive.
"If you look at T1 pricing in a competitive market like the greater L.A. area, we haven't seen anything below the low $500s, and even that is a very aggressive price for a T1," Warren said.
Reliable and secure
Once the decision was made, Ayars said NextWeb was able to install the service at its Dublin, Calif. office the next day, and just hours later it was up and running.
Ayars said the NextWeb service automatically kicks in when a T1 goes down. He said that during approximately a half-dozen outages over the past two years, the fixed wireless service took over without incident every time.
Unlike a wired connection, he said the wireless link isn't subject to third-party disturbances, like construction crews "digging a hole in the street and cutting a cable."
The link is also much more secure than the average Wi-Fi signal. Warren said that unlike Wi-Fi, to do any damage a fixed wireless hacker would need proprietary information, including the MAC addresses of the subscriber unit and access point. Additionally, NextWeb uses sophisticated encryption on all its transmissions.
"And even if you could get in, our customers are assigned unique IP addresses," Warren said. "We don't use [Dynamic Host Control Protocol}. So if you don't have a static IP address assigned to you by the system, you're not authorized to use the network."
Ayars said he's not the least bit concerned about the system's security. He said his firm hasn't had any security problems with fixed wireless, and he's confident that it is too difficult for hackers to penetrate the technology.
Warren said the combination of security, speed and affordability will soon help fixed wireless service providers proliferate and compete nationally for enterprise business, going head to head against T1 lines and other wired connectivity offerings. He said NextWeb has many customers -- including J.D. Power and Associates, CKE Restaurants Inc. and Laureate Education Inc. -- that, unlike Ayars' firm, are using fixed wireless as a primary connection in some instances.
"The equipment reliability has gone up while the costs have gone down, so that favors us tremendously," Warren said.
As for the future, Ayars said it's likely that Simpson Strong-Tie will roll out fixed wireless service at more of its locations once it is available, though he won't be turning off his wired connectivity anytime soon. But he said that for companies interesting in trying fixed wireless, installing it as a backup system is "an excellent way to get acquainted with it."