On the Hot Seat with FairPoint's Michael Brown

While the mobile industry buzzes about Clearwire’s use of WiMAX as a fourth generation mobile technology, a conventional wireline service provider, FairPoint Communications, is taking a more retro approach in its New England properties. Rather than building out a new mobile network, FairPoint, which is buying up most of Verizon’s New England landlines, is using WiMAX to feed broadband voice and data to hard-to-reach places starting in Vermont next year and proceeding throughout about 10 percent of the New England footprint after that. The carrier is using newly available 3.65 GHz spectrum the federal government’s making available on the cheap to drive broadband into the rural areas FairPoint serves. Jim Barthold, contributing editor to FierceWireless caught up with Michael Brown, FairPoint’s vice president of network engineering, to dig a little into the thought processes for the not-so-mobile deployment the carrier plans.

FierceWireless: So, if you’re rolling out a new technology like WiMAX anyway, why not step up and make it mobile?

Brown: We did investigate that (but) the price differential between the 802.16d portable standard and the 802.16e mobile standard was quite significant when we did our due diligence and made our selection back in April.

FierceWireless: Using 3.65 GHz spectrum and portable technology, though, shuts your subscribers off from roaming agreements with national players like Clearwire. Are you worried they might hear about Clearwire’s national mobile service and wonder why they can’t get it when they leave your territory?

I’m not really that concerned about using different spectrum. This is primarily just an access method to the network; we’re not trying to do a ubiquitous wireless play.

FierceWireless: OK, so why 3.65 GHz?

Brown: Being free is definitely a plus for us. In addition, we liked the fact that it was registered spectrum so once we put it in place a competitor can’t come in. We like 2.5 GHz for sure, but since we didn’t want to spend a lot of money until we actually closed on the (Verizon) deal, that put us a little late to be able to start the process to negotiate for that spectrum.

FierceWireless: What will subscribers get?

Brown: We’ll be mirroring our broadband DSL offer (7.1 Mbps for $39.99; up to 3 Mbps for $34.99 or up to 768 kbps for $17.99 a month). They won’t be calling and asking for the WiMAX service; they’ll just be calling and asking for a broadband package and we may elect to do that via DSL or via wireless.

FierceWireless: Will you throw video into the package?

Brown: We don’t have plans to roll out video throughout New England. We’ve done some testing in a lab environment and are able to pass video across the WiMAX platform … but the thing that we’re concerned about is the amount of bandwidth that’s available when you’re trying to deliver HD channels. You’re still looking at between 5 and 7 megs for HD in MPEG-4.

FierceWireless: How about the infrastructure? Will you be able to deliver adequate signals, for whatever use, without using outside antennas?

Brown: We designed it to where you can have the indoor antenna, but because we’re dealing with a lot of foliage, there will be some applications where we have to put on an external antenna. Our primary plan is to use the subscriber unit which is an indoor antenna.

FierceWireless: How do you make sure subscribers get an adequate broadband signal?

Brown: We’ve designed everything to not have a subscriber more than two-and-a-half miles from an access point and we’re making sure that each subscriber has access to at least two access points so it is more or less a mesh architecture. For towers, we’re using anything that sticks up high: grain silos, existing towers, and we’re doing some free standing towers ourselves.

FierceWireless: You’ve said mobile is out of the equation for now. What about portability? Will subscribers be able to cart their laptops around their residences or even outside or will they be tied to the antenna?

Brown: The units are 802.16d in a 3.65 GHz spectrum for the wide area network but they’re 802.11 on the local area network. The manufacturers that we’re working with have a PCMCIA card that goes into the laptop very much like Verizon or AT&T’s air card … just different technology (and spectrum).

FierceWireless: FairPoint is aggressively building out broadband in Verizon’s former New England territories. How does this WiMAX end game play into that equation?

Brown: It’s an extension of our next-generation network, another access platform to that network. We’re leveraging the next-generation network, the 10 gigabit Ethernet network and this comes back into that very quickly and allows us to be able to push quite a bit of bandwidth out to the customer and provides pretty good quality of service.