Wireless WAN in the Midwest

With summer break dripping away I have been excited following the transitions afoot in WWAN.

Legacy WWAN

IBM’s Motorola-designed and later owned 800 MHz 19.2kbps raw (8kbps throughput) ARDIS network is now “Motient”. Despite being rural, we are between major economic centers in the Midwest and so we are served by 935 MHz 8kbps raw Mobitex and Motient. Pricing plans usually fall behind nationwide coverage area, as while both hit the major urban areas, Motient and Mobitex cover suburban and rural areas sparsely and distinctively. Everyone from drug dealers to businessmen to cool kids (sometimes three-in-one) uses these devices including the Blackberry 85x/95x series for near-instant two-way messaging. UPS and other package delivery companies are looking to these nationwide WWAN for Internet package tracking–their truck terminals send delivery notices. This is important to me as I buy/sell on eBay and get my books from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I am still miffed that UPS took away those 220 MHz frequencies for this purpose that they never used….

The Mobitex and Motient base stations transmit with tens of watts, while the mobile units transmit with a few watts, the asymmetry justified by the usual concerns:

  1. mobile unit transmits blip of data, and may be in noisy environment, so base station needs more power to avoid missed acknowledgment
  2. mobile unit receive much less interference resistant than base station, and poorer sensitivity
  3. mobile unit may actually be portable and holstered, leading to human body losses that must be overcome to page the unit.

Limits of legacy WWAN

Delays in one-way paging are well-known, sometimes many minutes even in the high-speed FLEX paging systems. User count kills these legacy systems, they just don’t scale to supporting every delivery truck and certainly not everyone having data as it seems just about everyone is getting a cell phone these days. Once data becomes more than a fringe use case, a transition to next generation networks becomes inevitable.

Next gen WWAN

ESMR i.e. Nextel is expanding its all-digital network by 50% in 1998. As the high bidder in Auction 16, Nextel has all it needs to go forward on this promise. Yes it has the cash to burn, just like all these dot-coms. I am perplexed that Nextel has remained so voice-centric. Has there been an undercurrent of Motorola not wanting to compete with itself (i.e. ARDIS)? If so the transition to Motient may open some new packet/circuit-switched data opportunities to Nextel.

Nextel is hammering voice, voice, voice and yes their one-to-one and one-to-many Direct Connect is fantastic. They have their hands full building out their network, but even McCaw’s n1/3 billion dollar investment shouldn’t hold them back too long from bringing the Internet to handsets. It’s a little bit of chicken and egg problem: the handsets just aren’t powerful enough for anything beyond Gopher level of WWW yet.