Startup builds on Wi-Fi chips for cheaper 'last mile' to home broadband

Mimosa Networks wants to help service providers reach customers without laying fiber or copper

Mimosa Networks access points, left, and C5 client device, right. The C5 dish is about 8 inches (20 centimeters) wide.

Mimosa Networks access points, left, and C5 client device, right. The C5 dish is about 8 inches (20 centimeters) wide.

Areas starved for high-speed broadband may get a new option thanks to a system that's based on Wi-Fi hardware and could deliver half a gigabit per second to each home.

The technology from Mimosa Networks would send data from an access point on a tower or neighboring building to a small antenna on the customer's home. That could mean a much cheaper connection than running fiber or copper wires to each residence, an attractive proposition for service providers that want to compete with cable companies and carriers or get people in less developed countries online for the first time.

Wireless ISPs have used Wi-Fi for home broadband for years, but mostly in rural areas, partly because of interference issues in more dense neighborhoods. Mimosa took mass-produced, relatively low-cost chips built for Wi-Fi and modified them with its own protocol, which lets many users share time on a single channel, said Jaime Fink, founder and chief product officer at Mimosa, based in Campbell, California.

The Mimosa gear uses that protocol along with beam-forming features to point radio signals at individual homes. That lets it cover a whole neighborhood with transmitters placed one per kilometer or so, Fink said. In a typical setting, such a network could offer service of about 500Mbps (bits per second) both down to subscribers and back up to the Internet, he said. Mimosa has met with service providers in the U.S. and other countries and expects networks built with its technology to launch in the middle of next year.

Mimosa's system uses the same unlicensed 5GHz band as Wi-Fi for the main connections between access points and homes. That band offers many channels the network can use based on what other frequencies are in use nearby, and operating at rooftop level also helps to avoid interference. The special time-sharing protocol helps multiple customers use the same channel, because it's more reliable than the standard Wi-Fi method of handling spectrum, he said.

In an urban setting, the network could serve about 250 customers on one city block. Where needed, service providers could deploy a smaller access point on a customer's roof to avoid using another tower, offering that customer free access in return, Fink said.

While using the 5GHz band for Mimosa's long-range network, the access points can offer true Wi-Fi service in the 2.4GHz band within a range of a few hundred meters.

A 500Mbps connection is more than most U.S. residents can get from any service provider, and it could be deployed for a capital cost of about US$100 per customer, one-tenth the cost of connecting fiber to a home either underground or on poles, Fink said. That could give broadband upstarts a cheaper way to compete with entrenched cable and telecommunications carriers that already have fiber or copper lines into homes.

But Mimosa's bigger impact could be in parts of the world such as India or Brazil where most residents don't yet have home broadband. They face steep challenges to deployment.

"There is very little to no copper in the ground. There's almost no fiber" except for enterprise networks, Fink said. "There's absolutely no way that you can count on DSL being the primary [connection], or that fiber's going to be very cheap to do," despite lower labor costs for deploying lines, he said. The company expects to do about 80 percent of its business outside the U.S.

On Wednesday, Mimosa announced three models of access points and a client device for mounting on the roof or side of a building. The access points range in list price from $949 to $1,109, and the client unit lists at $99.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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