LMDS: A Fixed-Wireless Opportunity for Colleges and Universities
spectrum auctions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promise
to enable a cost-effective last-mile broadband opportunity for many
colleges and universities. Although it has some limitations, Local Multipoint
Distribution Service (LMDS) could be a good solution for high-speed
connections on campus -- without the cost of laying or upgrading wireline
infrastructure. Getting from here to there, however, will require some
technological homework and a willingness to bear the tradeoff of being
an early adopter.
LMDS is a fixed-wireless
last-mile access technology, competing with both local telephone companies
and cable providers. A very flexible, two-way broadband pipeline, it
can be used for both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint communication
within its somewhat limited range. Unlike most conventional radio (which
uses high power and a low frequency and can travel long distances),
LMDS is a low-power microwave technology with a high frequency that
can travel only a short distance -- usually limited to a cell radius
of about 10 kilometers.
With the high frequency
of LMDS comes a very short wavelength; it cannot bend around obstacles.
Accordingly, a clear line-of-sight is essential between an LMDS transmission
site and the receiving building. Heavy rain is also a concern, but "rain
fade" can be alleviated by simply upping the power. Some systems in
development utilize a dynamic power-increase capability, which senses
rain and adjusts the system power appropriately.
is a major constraint, LMDS nevertheless has great potential for a campus
environment because of its huge capacity, particularly if the campus
is relatively compact (e.g., within a 10-km radius). Most estimates
place the typical LMDS throughput somewhere in the neighborhood of 1
- 1.5 gigabits per second, an order of magnitude greater than the current
last-mile broadband offerings of the telephone companies (DSL: 256 Kbps
- 1.5 Mbps) and the cable providers (cable modems: 500 Kbps - 2 Mbps).
Compared with the cost of laying fiber or upgrading a copper plant,
the cost of installing LMDS can be much less, making LMDS very cost-effective
as a high-bandwidth link between a LAN and a WAN point-of-presence.
Economies of scale suggest this to be particularly true for buildings
that have high-demand LAN or that house a high concentration of users
(such as dormitories).
bandwidth licensed in the LMDS spectrum auctions is sufficient to broadcast
all the channels of direct-broadcast satellite TV, all of the local
broadcast channels, and up to 1 gigabit of full-duplex data service
in addition to voice telephony. FCC literature states, "Because of its
multi-purpose applications, LMDS has the potential to become a major
competitor to local exchange and cable television services." LMDS is
touted by some as a viable method for bypassing the local exchange carrier.
The LMDS Spectrum
In 1998 and early
1999, the FCC in two separate auctions sold off two blocks of spectrum
for each of the 493 geographic Basic Trading Areas (BTAs), for a total
of 986 licenses. The larger "A" block is 1.15 GHz wide. The "B" block
licenses are a narrower 150 MHz.
The first auction
in 1998 netted considerably less than expected, and over 100 rural BTAs
never received a bid. The FCC was forced to hold a re-auction in early
1999, at which it sold all of the remaining licenses. Accordingly, to
implement an LMDS solution in your area, you will need to contact the
license-holder(s). To identify the LMDS license-holder in your area,
visit the auction section of the FCC Web site (http://www.fcc.gov/wtb/auction/),
which includes downloadable Excel files of the successful bidders in
each BTA for each of the two LMDS auctions.
The FCC did a couple
of interesting things for these auctions. First, local cable companies
and incumbent local exchange carriers are prohibited from acquiring
A-block LMDS licenses in their markets for three years, reflecting a
desire by the FCC to promote facilities-based competition. Second, ten
years from now, license-holders will be required to submit evidence
of "substantial service" within their LMDS market or else risk forfeiture
of their license.
Tech LMDS Test-bed
Virginia Tech is
engaged in the nation's first partnership between a university and the
private sector for the deployment of a point-to-multipoint LMDS network.
Before the first LMDS auction in 1998, Virginia Tech correctly anticipated
that only high-population urban markets would be of interest to the
bidding companies; over 100 rural markets across the United States,
including the region surrounding Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, attracted
no commercial bidders. "Virginia Tech's participation in the auction
was predicated on the assumption that this technology will not be developed
in rural areas due to the expense of build-out coupled with relatively
low profit potential." (See "Virginia Tech LMDS Overview," available
In early 1998,
Virginia Tech became the first university in the nation to participate
in an FCC spectrum auction and was awarded four LMDS licenses covering
16,507 square miles in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The
region has an estimated population of 1.6 million. The university will
use the spectrum to establish a research test-bed for advanced wireless
communications, with particular emphasis on rural regions of the country.
It also hopes to use LMDS to remove the bottleneck to Net.Work.Virginia
and other advanced networks.
LMDS test-bed project is interdisciplinary, involving university geographers,
economists, business and marketing faculty, electrical engineers, and
computer scientists. A Washington-based company called Wavtrace is supplying
the technology. For more information on the Virginia Tech project, see
its Web site: http://www.lmds.vt.edu/.
LMDS is promising
but is in the early stages of development. As with any new technology,
the first few generations of equipment will be expensive. Higher education
institutions that seek to take advantage of the fixed-wireless opportunities
should be prepared for the tradeoff and trial-and-error difficulties
of being an early adopter. Conversely, being an early adopter has some
intrinsic value beyond the benefits of the technology itself. New technologies
need test-beds. Vendors and license-holders are quite likely to be receptive
to creative partnerships with universities. In addition, LMDS implementation
can be an excellent network research or educational opportunity for
university faculty or graduate students.
may find that the lack of commercial viability for LMDS deployment in
their areas works to their benefit. Leasing arrangements or outright
license purchase could be cost-effective. As anchor tenants, university
campuses can play a decisive role in enabling a broadband last-mile
wireless infrastructure in the area.
- As noted above,
all of the LMDS licenses have been auctioned off. Virginia Tech is
apparently the only university to have obtained licenses, so a direct
replication of the Virginia Tech model may be extraordinary. Nevertheless,
we encourage campuses to understand the circumstances of their local
market and to analyze opportunities, perhaps initiating contact with
local LMDS license-holders. Virginia Tech suggests that the following
steps be taken by communities that want to explore LMDS. The advice
is equally good for universities:
- Identify local
advocates. Ideally, set up a steering committee of local businesspeople,
educators, health workers, and other interested citizens.
- Generate government
and political support through the education of local decision-makers.
Advise council members, town-city managers, and others to create ordinances
and policies that will facilitate the establishment of a healthy network
- Develop viable
business and technical plans. Examine the market to determine the
mix of access solutions and services that would best be utilized by
- Identify potential
funding sources and partners. Be prepared to work with municipalities,
businesses, and other interested partners to purchase and implement
LMDS technology in your region.