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Cheap Broadband Could be 802.16

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Anyone looking for the next big thing in Silicon Valley should stop here at Layne Holt’s garage.

Mr. Holt and his business partner, John Furrier, both software engineers, have started a company with a shoestring budget and an ambitious target: the cable and phone companies that currently hold a near-monopoly on high-speed access for the “last mile” between the Internet and the home.

At the core of their plan is the inexpensive wireless data standard known as Wi-Fi or 802.11b, which is already shaking up the communications industry, threatening to undermine the business plans of cellular phone companies by offering a much cheaper method for mobile access to the Internet.

The pair’s company, known as Etherlinx, has taken the 802.11b standard and used it to build a system that can transmit Internet data up to 20 miles at high speeds — enough to blanket entire urban regions and make cable or D.S.L. connections obsolete.

Their secret weapon is a technology known as a “software-designed radio,” which has permitted them to create an inexpensive repeater antenna that can be attached to the outside of a customer’s home. The device, which the Etherlinx executives said they believe can be built in quantity for less than $150 each, would communicate with a central antenna and then convert the signals into the industry-standard Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, signal for reception inside the home.

Because of the staggering costs of wiring the nation’s homes for high-speed networking, only 7 percent, or 7.5 million homes, now have high-speed Internet access, according to a February report from the Federal Communications Commission.

The two Etherlinx executives say they have a religious fervor to change that by making broadband available widely and cheaply.

“We’re bandwidth junkies, and I can’t imagine a world in which people don’t have broadband,” Mr. Furrier said. “That’s our mission.”

Without venture capital backing, in a garage just six blocks from the garage where Steven P. Jobs and Stephen Wozniak launched Apple Computer 26 years ago, Mr. Holt is making his clever and inexpensive radio repeater by modifying inexpensive Wi-Fi cards, the circuitry that sends and receives the signals.

About Dave Conabree

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