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Cutting the broadband cord

Cutting the broadband cord
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

The Federal Communications Commission is set to begin a series of long-awaited auctions Tuesday designed to shift airwaves from a 20th century technology — television broadcasting — to a bandwidth-hungry 21st century one: mobile broadband. Although it's a complex and fraught process that will take years to complete, the demand for these airwaves is intense, driven by the explosion in wireless video streaming and data-hungry apps.

So naturally, the auctions are capturing a lot of attention. Yet with far less fanfare, engineers and entrepreneurs have been working on another wireless breakthrough that could benefit consumers sooner by injecting overdue competition into the market for residential Internet access.

The airwaves being auctioned are considered prime wireless real estate because the signals can travel great distances and pass through walls. Those properties allow a carrier to serve a larger area with fewer antennas, cutting costs and speeding deployment. That's why analysts expect at least $33 billion in bids. Yet the huge sums involved act as a barrier to entry, putting those wavelengths out of reach for many start-ups and smaller players. The airwaves are likely to be snapped up by Verizon Wireless, AT&T and other major spectrum users.

By contrast, the "millimeter wave" frequencies far higher than the ones used by TV broadcasters are considerably less desirable, and so can be leased for a tiny fraction of the price. There's a reason those airwaves are in less demand, though: Data sent in these frequencies don't travel far, cannot penetrate walls, and may lose their way in bad weather. And until recently, the signals would become hopelessly confounded in urban areas, interfering with themselves as they reflected back and forth off solid surfaces.

But as they're wont to do, technologists are finding ways to adapt those higher frequencies to the task. The first applications are being rolled out by small companies in limited areas; for example, Internet service providers in San Francisco are using high-frequency wireless gear from Israel-based Siklu to deliver ultra fast broadband to a limited number of residences, and a new ISP named Starry plans to roll out high-frequency broadband service on a wider scale in Boston this summer. If Starry works as advertised, it could pave the way for many more high-frequency upstarts offering wireless broadband fast and cheap enough to compete with the services that cable and phone companies have been offering at ever-rising monthly prices.

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Having more competition in broadband would not only help limit price hikes, but it would also pressure existing broadband providers to upgrade their networks and their customer service. In most communities, consumers have no more than two options for high-speed Internet connections to their homes — the local cable or phone company.

The auctions that begin Tuesday should help mobile companies offer faster data services with more generous monthly allowances, raising the possibility that more consumers will cut their cable modem cord in favor of mobile broadband. But it will take years before the winning bidders will be able to put the spectrum to use. Where new broadband services are popping up now is in the millimeter waves, in frequencies far away from the prime airwaves of TV.

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