New wireless broadband service arrives in Jacksonville

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on January 9, 2003.

A Dallas-based company is debuting its wireless broadband service in Jacksonville, hoping to compete with BellSouth, Comcast and others in providing high-speed access to the Internet.

"We wanted to go into an area with robust competition," said Leo Cyr, president and chief operating office of the company. "We want to show that we can do well in this type of marketplace."

Clearwire has had local businesses beta-testing the service for the past few months and readied itself wide-scale rollout this week; the ceremonial grand opening will be Feb. 12.

The company provides access through radio signals sent out through a host of antennas situated inside the I-295 Corridor. Customers pick up the signals on modems that can work inside office buildings and can then pipe the connection either to a computer or a network.

Clearwire sends its signal at a radio frequency that the Federal Communications Commission reserves for nonprofit educational institutions. Advances in technology have enabled educational broadcasts to use less of the spectrum, so organizations -- in this case, the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network and the Duval County school system -- are able to lease the excess space to wireless companies.

Nationally, many wireless Internet services operate in an unlicensed part of the spectrum, setting up networks known as Wi-Fi. Working at the higher, licensed frequency allows the company to transmit its single a greater distance, Cyr said, reaching some 7 miles away from its antennas compared to the few hundred feet that Wi-Fi hot spots extend.

Although the service is mobile -- during a demonstration, Cyr hooked a modem the size of a portable casette player to his laptop and downloaded movies while driving down San Marco Boulevard -- the company isn't touting that as its major selling point. Instead, the company president said, the target market is residents and businesses that don't have access to cable modems or digital subscriber lines.

That's a good strategy, said Robert Hoskins, publisher of Broadband Wireless Exchange Magazine of Phoenix. "The companies that are successful go in and build cells in black holes," the magazine publisher said. "They're really kicking butt in areas where people can't get broadband at all."

Cyr estimates that 20 percent of residents have no broadband access, and half of businesses can't hook up to DSL. The company can feasibly expect to sign up about 5 percent of possible residential customers and about 9 percent of possible business, he said.

That doesn't mean convincing those customers to sign up will necessarily be easy, said Andrew Cole, a senior vice president at Adventis, a Boston-based consulting group. "It's almost like a military campaign for these companies," he said, "going from building to building to establish a beachhead."

Clearwire's monthly access fees range from $150 to $240 for business customers and $50 to $80 for residential users.

The wireless broadband marketplace is still somewhat in its infancy, said Hoskins, who compared the industry to cellular telephones. "Twenty years ago I had a boss with a 20-pound cell phone that he could only use in a 10-mile radius," he said. "Now you can use them everywhere. It will be the same thing with wireless data. We're in the third year of a 10-year cycle."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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