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MediaCell Eyes Skies As Last-Mile Solution

In one Denver-based start-up's point of view, the best way to wire a broadband subscriber to a cable or telco network is to not use a wire at all.

Armed with a patent covering cable-modem and digital subscriber line applications, privately held MediaCell Inc. is now making the rounds, seeking service-provider partners for its wireless "last 100-meter" tap technology.

The company's goal is to help wired broadband providers cut their service costs and reduce their maintenance needs, according to chief technology officer Don Bishop. MediaCell claims that for a typical cable system, wireline taps cost about $260 per subscriber over a five-year term. The MediaCell system would cost about $174 per subscriber.

"This is really paradigm-shifting stuff, because you really are telling the cable guys and the DSL guys that they don't need a wire drop into the house," he said.

A wireless link to a broadband network isn't a new idea. Companies such as Cirronet Inc. and Wireless Bypass have fielded such products, but they're aimed at enterprise users. For its part, MediaCell targets its products to residential and enterprise applications.

MediaCell's system starts with its Wireless Tap, mounted on a ground cabinet or an existing utility pole. Configured to work with Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification or digital subscriber line systems, each tap provides the link from the wired network to the subscriber.

The tap can use any number of wireless transmission methods, but the most likely candidate will be 802.11 wireless Ethernet, given its rising consumer popularity and the fact that it uses unlicensed spectrum, according to Bishop.

Subscribers could link to the network using computers armed with a standard wireless Ethernet card or a home-networking base station, eliminating the need for a DSL or cable modem, he added.

Services spectrum

The types of services the system can deliver depends on the wireless scheme. If 802.11g or 802.11a is used, it could theoretically deliver a maximum connection of 54 Megabits per second, but in common practice throughputs are closer to 27 Mbps.

That's nowhere close to delivery of standard digital-cable television programming over a 750-Mhz coaxial link, but it could proffer several channels of video-on-demand along with voice and data service, Bishop said.

A multichannel service is possible in a DSL video system, where channel switching is handled at the central office and an individual channel is beamed to each customer, rather than the full spectrum of programming.

In addition, MediaCell's system would transmit only Internet-protocol video, so a subscriber would need a converter device to translate the IP data into standard MPEG-2 video for display on a television set.

MediaCell must also overcome wariness about the relative security of a wireless access link. Because MediaCell's scheme doesn't require a modem, Bishop said, service is authenticated via logins and pass codes processed by the network provider's control equipment. That makes it more difficult for pirates to tap into the wireless connection illegally, because the system does not presume that all users are authorized users.

"Our equipment doesn't make that assumption — in fact, it makes the opposite one," he said. "All of our administration is made from the wired side."

And much of MediaCell's promise has yet to be proven. While the company does have agreements to start tests with several cable operators, its equipment prototype is still being fine-tuned.

The company expects to have beta test units available by midyear, with production samples available after beta testing is completed.