Fixed Wireless Networking

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Fixed Wireless Networking

by Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021070

Publication Date: 2208

Report Type: TUTORIAL


As the developed world continues to become more and more connected, and the developing world expands its access into regions that previously had no connectivity whatsoever, the telecommunications industry is increasingly encountering difficulties in expanding wired and cellular networking technologies to reach everyone. The reasons can run the gamut from man-made congestion in urban centers to impassable terrain and inhospitable geography in the wilder regions of the world. However, the impact is the same: Installing traditional networking technologies in some regions is often not only impractical or financially unfeasible but downright impossible. This is where fixed wireless networking comes in. Using point-to-point transmission technologies, fixed wireless networking can take the place of a wired network with no physical connection needed between the origination point and the end user. Data can be transmitted over the air but in a much more reliable and faster way than via most traditional cellular signals. The benefits are obvious, with everything from the concrete canyons of cities to the mountains of Africa being made traversable as wireless signals pass over areas where wired installation would have cost tens of millions of dollars. This report examines current fixed wireless networking technology, the companies making use of it, and the possible alternatives.

Report Contents:

Faulkner Reports
4G Wireless Networks in the US
Wireless Local Area Network
FCC’s National
Broadband Plan
Telecommunications in
the US

Definition and Explanation

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Simply put, fixed wireless networks are designed to serve as full and
complete replacements for wired networking installations. While the same could be said of any wireless
connection, fixed wireless installations are unique in that both the transmitter
and receiver in the setup remain stationary for their entire lifespan. Unlike a
cellular or radio network, the end user is connected to a fixed
endpoint at all times. The method of this final connection to the user’s devices can be
made via Ethernet, a
wireless LAN network, or whatever the user chooses. However, this
final portion of the network is immaterial to the discussion here. What does
matter is the means that fixed wireless networks provide for traversing long distances that would typically require an expensive or impractical
wired installation. As mentioned above, this becomes particularly important
in two key areas: places of great man-made congestion and areas with impassible

The first instance, man-made congestion, is becoming more and more of a
problem in large urban centers. As human population increases, the number of
connections required in these densely populated cities does as well. The result
is a demand for more and more wired connections to provide the speeds and
throughput required by the additional residents and workers getting online.
Unfortunately, the amount of physical space available for wired installations in
not unlimited. Indeed, it is often at a severe premium due to regulatory and
monetary obstacles such as the rates charged to telecom companies wishing to run
new lines over existing telephone poles, the cost or lack of underground
networking conduit, and the various regulatory and legal concerns over attaching
wires to homes, office buildings, and multi-tenant units. The combination of all of
these obstacles often produces a monumental, if not impossible, task for
telecom companies wishing to broach new areas with their services. This has a
negative impact on competition, increasing the monopolistic situations many parts of
the country find themselves in when it comes to ISPs (Internet service
providers) and telecom service providers, and ultimately hurts both businesses
and consumers.

Similarly, as the developing world and rural market continue to become more and more
connected, a very different problem has emerged to cause the same basic lack of
available wired services. Rather than man-made congestion,
networking is hampered instead by nature itself. Impassible mountain ranges,
inhospitable deserts, dense forests, and other difficult terrain all pose
severe roadblocks to telecom companies wishing to expand into new, untouched
regions. Although this is more of an issue in developing regions like Africa,
India, and China, its impact can very easily be seen right at home in the US.
While some may find it hard to believe, there are still regions of the US that
have little or no broadband connectivity. In fact, as many as 24 million US
citizens in rural areas lack access to a 25Mbps download speeds as of
the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent comprehensive study.1 This
number is even higher when these rural areas are limited to tribal
lands within the US.2 Obviously, this situation does not sit well
with the US government or businesses. That is why initiatives like the FCC’s
National Broadband Plan and 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have
been created to actively incentivize the introduction of broadband networks to
these remote regions in the US. While there has been some success in closing the
connectivity gap between urban and rural citizens, the continued difficulty
posed by the geographical limitations of these rural markets continues to hamper
efforts both at home and abroad.

Now that the problem has been established, the solution can be examined.
Fixed wireless networks aim to solve the above problems by providing a network
setup that does not require any physical connection between the origination
point and the endpoint. To illustrate this, imagine a situation in which a
far-flung farming community past the edge of town needs Internet connectivity.
The telecom companies are not willing to run their networking hardware out there
because the distance would raise the cost of the project far in excess of
what it could expect to make from subscriptions purchased by the sparse
population of this community. Making matters worse is the fact that nearby hills
block traditional wireless signals, making it impossible for even cellular
broadband to reach the example community. Members of this small community, and many like it, would be
left to fend with outdated or non-existent Internet connections and little or no
access to anything more advanced than a landline telephone. However, a fixed
wireless network could be installed in a way that would circumvent both the
prohibitive costs and local terrain while providing speeds on par
with a wired connection.

How Fixed Wireless Networks Work

At this point, the reader may be wondering how exactly a fixed wireless
network functions. While there are multiple transmission technologies at work in
many fixed wireless networks, the basic setup is the same. We will once again
use the above, fictional farming town as an example of how a fixed wireless
network would be installed. First, a connection to a traditional wired network
would be made somewhere within a nearby town or urban center. This origination
point would use physical connections to communicate with local fiber, copper, or
some other form of broadband network. However, upon reaching this newly created
transmission station, the signals would be converted from wired to wireless by
an antenna that has permanently been aimed at its counterpart in the farming
community. This antenna would output the converted data in either radio or, less
commonly, optical form to traverse the airspace between it and the farming
community. A similar antenna, now installed at a geographical high point near
the edge of the farming town would then receive the radio or optical signal,
convert it back to a wired signal, and transmit it over a much shorter, more
practical distance to the homes and businesses within the community via whatever
type of transmission technology is required for the local citizens. This could be
anything from traditional Ethernet to local copper connections to Wi-Fi,
depending on the specific distances at play. The most daunting part of the journey,
however, has been made by the fixed wireless networking technology and its
ability to traverse long distances above rough terrain. This is where fixed
wireless networking shines, when it serves as a bridge capable of filling in
gaps in the telecom infrastructure of a region caused by geographic or man-made
impediments. The above scenario could easily be altered to illustrate a similar
situation in an unusually disconnected or congested segment of an urban center, with
skyscraper tops playing home to the same antennae as the aforementioned hills.

The Technology Behind Fixed Wireless Networks

Although it was mentioned briefly above, understanding actual transmission
technology behind fixed wireless networks is of the utmost importance when attempting to
define their applications and limitations. While the specific types of signals
will be covered in more detail below, the two basic types of fixed wireless
networks are radio and optical.

  • Optical Networks – This type of network uses
    light as a transmission medium. Sometimes called a laser bridge or
    "free-space optical communication," the technology is basically a modern
    equivalent of the flashing lights and coded signals that have allowed
    sailors to communicate with other ships on the ocean for thousands of years.3
    However, instead of lanterns or torches, high-powered optical transmitters
    output a narrow beam of light toward a sensor array on their counterpart
    transmission tower, with data being transmitted over the beam via impulses
    in much the same way a fiber optic cable would carry the signal.
    Unfortunately, this type of network is often impractical due to the ease
    with which its connection can be disrupted. While fiber optic connections
    occur over glass cables in shielded conduits, free-space optical
    communications must contend with whatever obstructions may be passing
    through the open air. Although this consideration is true for all fixed
    wireless scenarios, those relying on optical signals are particularly prone
    to obfuscation by something as simple a fog, rain, or even a flock of birds.
    For this reason, optical fixed wireless networks are generally only employed
    in situations where ideal conditions are almost always guaranteed to exist,
    making them a rare choice in the modern fixed wireless arena.
  • Radio Networks – Like optical networks, the radio type of fixed wireless network also requires a line
    of sight between its transmitters. This is typically made possible by
    situating the network’s antennas on the tops of tall buildings or on top of tall geographic features. Although this allows the network to avoid
    essentially all physical obstructions, transient issues like the weather or
    fauna described above do still pose a risk. However, the resilience of a
    radio-based transmission exceeds that of an optical
    connection. This can easily be illustrated by looking at the cell phones
    most people use in their day to day lives. While going inside a building may
    degrade a signal, it typically takes several feet of concrete and steel
    before modern radio connections begin to completely attenuate. Similarly,
    fixed wireless radio signals are able to traverse obstacles like fog and
    rain with relative ease. This is not to say that inclement weather cannot
    have an effect on them, but they are far more able to cope with changing
    atmospheric conditions than their optical counterpart. This ability can be
    further bolstered by technologies such as narrow-beam microwave
    transmission, which is better able to penetrate moisture or obstruction than
    a similar, wide band network would be. However, not all fixed wireless
    networks run on the same frequencies. Some do use the unlicensed
    "Industrial, Scientific, and Medical" (ISM) bands (located in the 900MHz,
    1.8GHz, 2.4GHz, and 5GHz ranges), but most commercial services use
    frequencies licensed by the network provider to insure that all
    communications remain as private and immune to interference as possible.
    The variance in frequencies employed does have an effect on the final
    transmission speed and reliability, meaning that not all fixed wireless network
    connections are created equal.

Current Providers of Fixed Wireless Networks

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This section will examine the uses to which fixed wireless networking is
currently being put by covering some of the most important companies
that currently offer fixed wireless services in the US.

  • Google – Google got into the fixed
    wireless arena when it acquired a company called Webpass in 2016. This tech firm was a
    specialist in providing fixed wireless networking to multi-dwelling units
    (apartments and office buildings) via point-to-point networking. The
    technology employed by Webpass is very similar to what is described above,
    with throughput speeds reaching as high as 1Gbps, or near the top end of
    what some of the fastest wired service providers currently offer.4
    Interestingly, Google is widely believed to have purchased Webpass
    specifically to provide it with a way to avoid the red tape, high costs, and
    other obstacles facing companies attempting to install new physical
    networking hardware. Specifically, its Google Fiber division had faced
    extreme difficulties in deploying its 1Gbps fiber to the premises (FTTP)
    connections due to a variety of local regulations, pole attachment costs,
    and all of the other reasons mentioned earlier in this report. Although
    Google itself has not confirmed the fact that it expects Webpass’s fixed
    wireless to serve as a way to avoid the difficulties of fiber installation,
    the timing of the purchase combined with a significant downsizing in its
    Fiber division shortly after Webpass’ acquisition would seem to point
    strongly at such hopes existing within the search giant.5 Indeed,
    Webpass’ point-to-point connectivity does offer the potential to provide
    connectivity to many thousands of people via rooftop antennae that require
    only a small fraction of the costs and regulatory red tape that Google’s
    fiber installations typically do. At the time of writing, Google had
    expanded Webpass’ services to customers in a total of 11 metro areas:
    Austin, Berkeley, Chicago, Denver, Emeryville, Miami, Nashville, Oakland, San Diego, San
    Francisco, and Seattle. The current catalogue of Webpass offerings are limited to
    multi-dwelling units with at least 10 residents.6 Google’s
    Webpass efforts exemplify what obstacles can be avoided in an established urban
    setting by switching from traditional wired technologies to a fixed wireless
    alternative. While the company has done relatively little in the years since
    its WebPass acquisition to expand the company’s offerings, a 2020 filing
    suggests that may change. The company requested permission from
    the FCC to test 6GHz-based broadband services in a total of 17 cities.7
    Although Google remained purposely vague about the parameters of the
    experimental service, it will almost certain expand upon the services
    offered by WebPass, bringing the company’s offerings into the 5G era.
  • Windstream – One of the largest and oldest providers of
    fixed wireless services, Windstream currently offers access to fixed
    wireless installations to more than 70 metro areas, including major cities
    like Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake
    City, and Seattle. Windstream’s offerings focus on connecting a multi-dwelling unit or
    technological installation with a satellite office, local exchange carrier,
    or data center. The company offers installation to new fixed wireless
    service customers in as little as 30 days, far outstripping the time and
    cost that would be required to equip a new facility with FTTP or a similar
    hard-wired connection. Windstream’s full catalogue of services available via
    its microwave-based fixed wireless networks include Multiprotocol Label
    Switching (MPLS), Voice (SIP or TDM), and dedicated Internet access.
    Throughput speeds can be custom tailored, and range from 1Mbps to 1Gbps.
    Unlike many providers of fixed wireless services, Windstream also offers
    short term service packages that include temporary installation of the
    roof-top, line-of-sight antennae required for its operation.8
    Windstream is currently one of the most well-established fixed wireless
    providers in the US. Its large service area, rapid deployment times, and
    wide range of services show that fixed wireless is a viable alternative for
    companies and larger, multi-dwelling units. However, it does not provide the
    same level of service for smaller dwellings or individuals, exposing one of
    the primary weaknesses in most modern fixed wireless markets.
  • AT&T – AT&T is perhaps the best example of an
    American company utilizing fixed wireless connectivity to help bring
    broadband to rural and hard-to-reach markets. The telecom company is
    currently participating in the latest round of the FCC’s Connect America
    Fund program. This initiative incentivizes the process of installing
    broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas of the country. It is
    the latest in a string of efforts towards the same goal of closing the rural
    broadband gap mentioned above. While AT&T itself and other carriers have
    used these federal government funds to install traditional wireless networks
    that would have otherwise been financially unfeasible, the company has now
    also shifted focus towards bringing broadband to areas that would be
    physically impossible for wired connections to reach. The first of these
    fixed wireless installations was completed in early 2017 in the state of
    Georgia. According to the carrier, that was only the first step in what is
    plans to be a massive rollout of fixed wireless communications installations
    across 22 states. It should be noted that these installations only provide10Mbps download/1Mbps upload
    speeds. Although this is below the updated 25Mbps federally mandated
    threshold for commercial broadband, these speeds
    are still far in excess of the dial-up connectivity which was the sole
    Internet access available to most citizens impacted by AT&T’s rollout.9,10
  • Other Providers – The above trio provide a
    cross-section of the current leaders in fixed wireless services in the US,
    with a focus on covering each of the three main applications which fixed
    wireless networking can fulfill: Google’s combating of urban congestion;
    Windstream’s flexible, scalable installations that can even be deployed on a
    temporary basis; and AT&T’s ability to reach underserved areas in rough
    rural terrain. However, they are far from the only providers currently
    available. In fact a
    list of
    fixed wireless broadband providers in the US published by BroadbandNow shows
    approximately 1,725 companies offering some form of these services.11
    These companies includes a massive range of customer bases and maximum
    speeds; some of the largest boast market coverage areas including 19 million
    plus, while some of the smallest cover just 500,000 or so. Similarly,
    speeds go anywhere from 1Mbps to 1Gbps.12 This range of sizes,
    speeds, and geographic coverage shows that fixed wireless networks can be
    just as flexible as their wired counterparts.

Alternatives to Fixed Wireless

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As with just about any problem that can be solved by technology, there
are multiple ways to approach the deficiencies that can be corrected through
the installation of fixed wireless networks. Although none of the
alternatives posed here will have quite the same ability to combat all
of the specific obstacles fixed wireless networks can circumvent, some
do hold advantages over fixed wireless in certain situations, while
other can fulfill the same duties in many cases. Below is a list of
possible alternatives, including their advantages and disadvantages
when compared to a fixed wireless networking installation.

  • Wired Networking – This is the technology that fixed
    wireless networking was essentially designed to replace. It relies on some
    type of physical conduit (fiber optic cables, copper cable lines, underwater
    cables, etc.) to physically connect two endpoints via optical or electrical

    • Advantages
      • Reliability – While modern fixed wireless
        networks can very nearly match their wired counterparts in
        reliability tests, they cannot quite reach the exact same level of
        guaranteed uptime. Factors causing this include the susceptibility
        of fixed wireless networks to weather conditions, natural and
        man-made disasters, and line-of-sight obstructions. Although a
        natural or man-made disaster could also put a wired network out of
        commission, the placement of many telecommunications lines under
        ground can make them immune to most terrestrial disasters, and resilient
        to nearly all weather phenomena.
      • Compatibility – The prevalence of wired
        networks means that their particular technologies and protocols are
        well-supported and widely available. No specialized or exotic
        equipment is needed to connect to a copper-based cable network
        because cable modems are available off-the-shelf. Fiber-based
        networking hardware is similarly well established. The rarer nature of fixed wireless
        installations means there’s not such thing as a plug-and-play fixed
        wireless installation or do-it-yourself option for bringing a fixed
        wireless connection to a given residence.
      • Individual Access – This refers to the fact
        that a single home can easily subscribe to wired connections, where
        available. Fixed wireless installations, however, generally require
        multiple homes or businesses to subscribe in order to be
        cost-effective due to the nature of their installation and setup.
        This means a sole homesteader in a remote region may be out of luck
        on both accounts.
    • Disadvantages
      • Installation Woes – Despite all of the
        advantages listed above, this single disadvantage encompasses all of
        the issues that quite simply disqualify the usage of a wired network
        in a given area. As previously mentioned, these obstacles include
        man-made issues such as telecom congestion, obstructive buildings,
        public ordinances, and more, as well as natural impediments like
        mountainous terrain, long stretches of untamed wilderness, or bodies
        of water. Any and all of these issues can come up when a company
        would otherwise have simply run a new cable to a far-flung community
        or business, stopping any such deployment in its tracks.
  • Cellular Networking – This refers to the cellular networking that
    connects the smartphones, tablets, and laptops of billions of users across
    the globe. It encompasses technologies such as 3G, 4G LTE, and 5G protocols. Cellular networks currently offer access to both voice and
    data, and can be just as flexible in what they carry as their wired

    • Advantages
      • Availability – This is an advantage with some
        caveats. While cellular networks are much more widely available than
        fixed wireless networks, they are far from ubiquitous. This is due
        to the current limitations of the transmission technologies in use,
        such as signal range, signal penetration of man-made structures, and
        the same lack of population density that causes telecom companies to
        be reluctant to deploy any hardware in rural area. However, with all
        that having been said, cellular voice and data networks can provide
        access to tens of thousand of individuals from a single cell site,
        blanketing a given area in coverage with a single installation.
      • Individual Access – As with a wired network, a
        sole subscriber can pay to access an established cellular network.
        This once again provides an advantage over the fact that fixed
        wireless networks often need a relatively large group of guaranteed
        subscribers in place to warrant the installation of the necessary
    • Disadvantages
      • Interference – The same ability to blanket an
        area in coverage also makes cellular networks prone to interference.
        Where fixed wireless networks use a narrow beam of radio or optical
        signals to transmit their data, cellular networks simply output an
        omni-directional signal in a sphere around their origination point.
        Although careful curation of frequency bands mostly curtails this
        issue, it is becoming more and more of a problem as the available
        airspace cannot be expanded to support the continually growing needs
        of telecom companies in the US. This is why the FCC is in a constant
        battle to assign and police wireless spectrum markets across the US
        to prevent interference from bogging down connectivity for millions
        of people.
      • Security – This is closely related to the above
        issue. Where a fixed wireless connection’s narrow beam transmission
        is essentially inaccessible to anyone but the owners of the endpoint
        antennae, cellular networks can be accessed by anyone in the area. This
        means that sensitive communications traveling across these networks
        are prone to interception and injection of malicious data. This is
        particularly worrisome for users transmitting private financial or
        medical data, and is a serious concern when attempting to comply
        with governmental regulations safeguarding the transmission of such
      • Speed – Although 5G networking protocols are
        currently being deployed that outstrip current wireless
        standards, real-world 4G speeds that are currently available to
        the vast majority of consumers often struggle to reach the 100Mbps mark. While this may
        be more than enough for most on-the-go individuals, it is simply
        insufficient for large businesses or multi-unit dwellings with
        multiple users access their data network at any given time.
  • Satellite Networking – This technology has, for some
    time now, been the go-to solution for those wishing to obtain Internet
    access in remote or rural areas. It relies on direct, line-of-sight
    connections with satellite in orbit around the earth to provide access to
    terrestrial data networks in other parts of the globe.

    • Advantages
      • Availability – Simply put, there are few places
        on the earth where Internet access of this type is completely unavailable. It’s
        reliance on satellites means that any location with an unobstructed
        view of the sky has the potential to access the Internet in this
        way. This, however, assumes that there is an available satellite
        above to handle the connection. Due to the growing prevalence of
        such satellites, this is generally not an issues for US citizens or
        those in more developed portions of the Earth. However, it is less
        of a sure thing for subscribers in regions where the population
        density is too low for a satellite telecom company to have spent the
        money to position a satellite in the geosynchronous orbit needed to provide
        constant connectivity.
    • Disadvantages
      • Rollout Time – Unlike the 30-day or less
        installation time of fixed wireless networks promised by providers
        like Windstream, satellite access can often take several years to
        set up. This is due to the costly, highly technical, restricted nature of launching anything into orbit, let alone a
        strictly regulated telecommunications satellite. As mentioned above,
        these obstacles make companies reluctant to undertake the cost and
        time involved in launching new satellite coverage, meaning only the
        most cost-effective regions are likely to see new coverage in
        anything like the near future.
      • Interference – As with several of the other
        technologies, interference can disrupt satellite communications as
        well. This can come in the form of electronic signal interference,
        as well as something as simple as snow or rain. After all, the
        terrestrial satellite receiver needs a line of sight available
        between it and the transmission satellite in orbit. While some
        cloud cover or precipitation may not pose a problem, heavy rain or
        snow can indeed degrade signals down to unusable levels.
      • Speed – This is the biggest drawback of most
        satellite Internet installations. Despite the fact that theoretical
        downlinks as high as 1,000Gbps are possible, real-world speeds are
        more like 1Mbps, with uplink speeds reaching a paltry 256Kbps,
        barely any faster than dial-up. Making matters worse is the severe
        latency seen in most satellite connections, ranging as high as
        638ms, or nearly a full half-second.13 This may not pose too great an
        obstacle to simple Web browsing, but online gaming and other
        reaction-intensive tasks would essentially be off the table.
        Thankfully, for those with satellite Internet as their only option,
        speeds have continually been increasing, and latency has been
        decreasing. It may become a viable alternative to fixed wireless
        connectivity at some point, but it simply cannot compete as things


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Unfortunately, fixed
wireless networking is not a cure-all able to solve every problem in the modern
telecommunications world. However, it is very adept at circumventing many of the
issues that have been mentioned several times in this report: physical and
electronic congestion: man-made and natural obstructions; and lengthy and costly
installation timeframes. Because of these advantages, and the growing amount of
flexibility required from future telecommunications networks, the option to use
fixed wireless networking is becoming more and more attractive. What was once a
niche offering from providers like Windstream is now being exploited by the
likes of A&T and Google. With some of the biggest names in telecommunications
paying attention, it may be time for others to sit up and take notice as well.

This is also not to say that fixed wireless networking is ready to take over for
more well-established technologies. Drawbacks like its dependence on
multi-dwelling installations, height requirements for antenna installation, and
remaining susceptibility to interference must all be taken into account.
However, there are some situations, as Google and AT&T are beginning to
discover, that pose much, much more difficulty for wired networks or cellular
networks than they do for fixed wireless installation. These types of networks
may not be a universal solution to modern telecom woes, but they will almost
certainly become an important weapon in the arsenal of future telecom companies
combating growing population and shrinking physical and airspace freedoms.


1 "2018 Broadband Deployment Report." US Federal Communications Commission.
February 2, 2018.

2 Ibid.

3 "Wireless Broadband and Other Fixed-Wireless Systems."

Retrieved May 18, 2016.

4 Arnason, Bernie. "Google Fiber Now Pushing Gigabit Fixed Wireless."
January 31, 2017.

5 Trefis Team. "Why the Acquisition of WebPassCould Be Significant for Google
Fiber." Forbes. June 27, 2016.

6 "More Places to Grab Gigabit, With Webpass." Webpass Blog.
January 30, 2017.

7 "Public Redacted Version: Google File No. 0696-EX-CN-2020." US Federal Communications Commission.
August 15, 2020.

8 "Network & Data Services: Fixed Wireless." Windstream. Retrieved May 19, 2017.

9 "The AT&T Issue Brief Library: Deployment to Rural and Underserved Areas."
AT&T. Retrieved May 19, 2017.

10 "AT&T Launches First Wave of Fixed Wireless Internet Availability to Rural
and Underserved Areas." AT&T. Retrieved May 19,

11 "Fixed Wireless Internet." BroadbandNow. Retrieved May 20, 2017.

12 Ibid. 

13 Brodkin, John. "Satellite Internet Faster Than Advertised, but
Latency Is Still Awful." Ars Technica.
February 15, 2013.

About the Author

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Michael Gariffo is an editor for Faulkner Information Services. He
tracks and writes about enterprise software, the Web, and the IT services
sector, as well as telecommunications and data networking.

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