4G in Columbia

This story was first published in the Columbia Missourian on July 31, 2011.

COLUMBIA — Wireless Internet in Columbia is about to accelerate to the next generation.

Two Columbia companies, Full Stream Wireless and Tranquility Internet Services, have teamed up to bring “fourth-generation,” or 4G, wireless broadband Internet service to the city. The service will be launched Aug. 15.

The wireless network was developed by Full Stream, which will operate it as a wholesale provider. It will seek resellers, such as Internet service providers, that can sell the 4G service to consumers. Tranquility Internet Services is Full Stream’s first reseller.

Richard Cravens, director of business development for Full Stream, said the company has approached the “early adopters” in Columbia before launching the service and the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“We feel there is a deep need for this kind of technology in this area,” Cravens said.

Full Stream’s network uses WiMAX technology. The standard, formally known as Wireless Interoperability for Microwave Access, is also used by Clearwire, a wireless company which sells its own 4G service nationally under the brand name “Clear” and also provides Sprint’s 4G network.

The WiMAX network developed by Full Stream is a data network — it cannot be used for cellular use via smartphones. Customers will be able to make voice calls from their computers using Internet calling software, though.

The service will initially be offered with “limited coverage” in Columbia and Ashland, and will compete with wired DSL and wireless Internet services in these areas.

Travis Schumacher, Tranquility’s general manager, said the company plans to target three kinds of users in the home and business markets.

“Our target market is a combination of users who seek mobility, businesses that require reliable backup connections so that they could still have connectivity if there’s a cable cut somewhere, and customers who want an unbundled Internet service,” Schumacher said.

For customers, the wireless Internet service will allow choices from among a set of devices and service plans.

Enter the gadgets

Cravens said Full Stream will provide a “full mobility solution” using a flash drive-size WiMAX modem that can be plugged into a USB port in a laptop or desktop computer.

The USB modem is designed for outdoor use, so it might not work well indoors depending upon the type of building structure. However, it performs well in a moving vehicle and might be a good option for users who need wireless Internet on the go.

An outdoor antenna, which provides a greater range and can be used for homes and offices, and an indoor wireless modem — bigger than the USB modem and suitable for desktop use — will also be offered.

Schumacher said details of how the devices will be provided to customers haven’t been finalized. Cravens said Tranquility will provide the devices as part of a service agreement instead of selling them.

Price and service plans

How much will it cost?

“We are still finalizing the prices,” Schumacher said. “There will be a number of different packages as far as speeds go.”

Both companies said the “pricing and performance will be comparable to DSL services.”

According to Full Stream, there are four proposed service plans that are being considered for marketing.

The basic plan would start with a maximum download speed of 1 megabit per second (Mbps) and a maximum upload speed of 500 kilobits per second, with each subsequent plan offering incrementally higher speeds.

Cravens said conservative estimates based on network trials showed download speeds of 6 to 10 Mbps and upload speeds of 2 to 4 Mbps within a one-mile range of the tower location. These speeds rival those advertised by cellular 4G providers such as Verizon (5 to 12 Mbps download) and Clear (3 to 6 Mbps download).

The speeds, however, are affected by a number of factors including interference from the environment, but most importantly by the distance from the towers and coverage area.

Limited coverage

Full Stream has leased two towers in Columbia and one in Ashland from commercial tower companies to transmit its signals. Initially, the service will provide limited coverage in central Columbia and Ashland.

Full Stream CEO Kent Froeschle said the company plans to extend its coverage areas over the next few months.

The company acquired a license to broadcast in Columbia through a sublease. Its spectrum allocation covers a 30-mile radius, so it can potentially provide coverage to parts of central Missouri including Boone County, Fulton, Tipton, Eldon and Jefferson City.

The perks of 4G

The fourth generation of wireless technology succeeds 3G, which has been commonly used by cellular service providers since the early 2000s.

Yi Shang, a professor at the MU department of Computer Science who researches mobile computing and wireless sensors, said 4G has three main advantages over previous generations:

  • Higher data rates: It can provide four to 10 times faster download speeds than 3G. This means users will be able to download Web pages more quickly and stream HD videos with better quality. Typical 3G download speeds range between 0.6 to 1.5 Mbps.
  • Less delay: The advanced technology reduces delay of transmission 20 to 30 percent compared to 3G, Shang said. So, users can look forward to better quality video streaming and less lag in video calls.
  • Greater capacity: Shang said 4G offers 10 to 20 times more capacity than 3G, which means more users can connect to the network at the same time.

Shang said introducing 4G wireless Internet in Columbia was a step in “a good direction, which will make the city a little more advanced.”

It might sound like a simple enough step, but for the two companies involved it took a lot of time and planning.

Homegrown 4G

For Schumacher, it took a phone call, several meetings and some vision to bring a new solution to Columbia. Those efforts brought about the partnership between Tranquility and Full Stream.

Tranquility started primarily as a Web hosting firm and later brought in more services such as dial-up Internet and DSL, Schumacher said. It serves about 1,500 customers, mostly from Columbia.

Froeschle said Full Stream approached Tranquility because it has been an established service in Columbia for several years and had the same philosophy as Full Stream.

“They provide a high level of technical services to the technological community here, and we are committed to the same level of technical excellence,” he said.

Froeschle said he and owner Neal Miller started Full Stream Wireless in 2006 with the exclusive purpose of setting up a network capable of supporting 4G technology.

“We believed it would provide the infrastructure for all sorts of advancements in wireless technology,” Froeschle said.

The goals were lofty for a small business, especially considering that WiMAX was fresh out of the lab and only a few WiMAX networks had appeared around the world by that time.

Froeschle said putting together a technical team for the job, figuring out the technological details and the cost of implementation were all challenges.

After four years of hard work, the core WiMAX services went online in December 2010, but the grueling task of testing the performance of the network had only started.

Seven months and several technical trials later, the network is about to be tested by the market.

Competing with the big fish

Full Stream will be the first WiMAX network operator in Columbia, but it will inevitably face competition from bigger players, especially the 4G cellular service providers.

Clearwire has a license to broadcast its 4G service in Columbia, but currently it doesn’t provide service in Missouri except for St. Louis and Kansas City.

Christopher Comes, director of public relations for Clearwire, said the company has no immediate plans to expand coverage and would wait until additional funding becomes available.

Sprint does not list Columbia on the coverage maps available on its website, but some signals might be available in the Columbia area due to a partial, non-official rollout or service trials.

Verizon 4G, which uses LTE for its service, covers St. Louis and Kansas City. Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Hill said the company was adding more markets to its 4G coverage map and hopes to cover the whole country by 2013. She said Columbia will be part of that extended rollout, and 4G devices are available at Verizon’s store in Columbia.

Despite the challenges ahead, Schumacher is looking forward to the launch.

“We’re pretty excited about this project, which has a lot of potential,” he said.

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