WiMAX forum experiences hiccups

By Editor   |   04 May 2010   |   10:00 pm  
THE WiMAX Forum Congress Asia 2010 in Taipei was going swimmingly with lots of good news stories for the WiMAX community to get excited about and then Jan Nilsson, president of local 3G and WiMAX operator, Far EasTone, took to the stage and brought everybody back to earth with a bump. 
Although conceding that he was broadly satisfied with WiMAX from a technology viewpoint, Nilsson told the assembled WiMAX faithful that the technology still had two major shortcomings that vendors needed to put right.
Firstly, he complained that vendors had still not done enough work on solving the critical issue of in-building reception and argued that WiMAX was still not providing an adequate quality in-building service, especially in high-density urban environments.
Nilsson complained that from an engineering perspective that WiMAX network vendors had focused their energies on providing “outside to inside” network coverage when they should have followed the opposite path and focused on “inside to outside” coverage.
Secondly, Nilsson complained that if WiMAX was going to be a commercial success that local handset vendors really needed to up their game and release far more multi-mode devices onto the market, allowing access to WiMAX, Wi-Fi and 3G networks.
Quite simply, Nilsson warned delegates, FET would not be significantly expanding its investment in its WiMAX operations until those two critical problems had been solved by the vendor community.
Perhaps sensing that he may as well be “hung for a sheep as for a lamb” Nilsson pressed his point home by adding that claims made by some WiMAX vendors that WiMAX was cheaper to deploy than HSPA were simply incorrect.
In fact, Nilsson claimed, from FET’s perspective that HSPA rollout was around 50 per cent of the price of WiMAX rollout and while that remained the case FET would focus on extending its HSPA network rather than rolling out new WiMAX network coverage.
“We need to have a cost efficient WiMAX solution,” he told vendors.
As you can probably imagine Nilsson’s speech caused something of a stir amongst conference delegates who had previously been filled with the good news that WiMAX was on a sure path to global success.
The house PR line spun by the WiMAX Forum is that WiMAX has a golden opportunity to exploit the huge un-served global demand for broadband services because it is proven and ready for commercial deployment right now.
By comparison, the WiMAX Forum argues that existing rival technologies such as HSPA do not have the capacity to serve both the voice and data markets whilst LTE is still at least two to three years away from being ready for commercial deployment.
Accordingly, Nilsson’s note of realism was crucially important in helping the WiMAX community to focus on the fact that although the technology does indeed find itself in a hugely promising position, most especially in many developing markets such as India, that there are still serious challenges ahead.
The first of these, as so well enunciated by Nilsson, is the fact that WiMAX, especially in the higher spectrum ranges, continue to struggle with in-building coverage and this is something that quite clearly needs addressing on an urgent basis.
WiMAX loyalists like to boast that the poor quality of service from 3G-based mobile broadband services – most particularly the number of drop-outs experience by subscribers – is one of the reasons why WiMAX has such a great chance of success in many markets.
However, WiMAX won’t be in a position to capitalise on that opportunity – especially if it is coming into the market as a DSL replacement service as it will in many markets – if it does not solve the thorny problem of in-building reception.
Secondly, Nilsson’s warning about the paucity of multi-mode WiMAX devices on the market are also extremely relevant for the future prospects of WiMAX in developed markets like Taiwan, where WiMAX will have to blend into the eco-system with 3G and Wi-Fi.
As a stand-alone technology WiMAX is not a particularly attractive option for mobile operators such as FET in developed markets who have already deployed 3G services.
However, WiMAX can be used effectively by these operators if subscribers are able to access multi-mode devices because operators can then use WiMAX to provide additional capacity in high-traffic areas and fall back on HSPA in other areas of the network.
The spectrum crunch one factor not addressed by Nilsson but which was addressed by many other WiMAX operators at the event, was the subject of WiMAX spectrum allocation with many operators claiming that their typical 30MHz of spectrum were not enough.
Indeed, most operators agreed that in order to offer the kind of high-speed services with generous download allocations that they would really like then they would ideally like to have 60MHz of spectrum available to them.
The problem is, of course, that in attempting to ensure that markets are infused with sufficient competition that regulators have frequently allocated between four to six WiMAX licenses, thereby dividing up the available spectrum too thinly between competing operators.
In many cases, operators argued, this has resulted in them launching services with their inadequate 30MHz of spectrum whilst watching rival licensees sit on the sidelines and delay the launch of their services indefinitely because they had fears about the commercial viability of their service.
The message from operators – and one that certainly makes good sense – is that regulators need to balance their demands for greater competition with more realism about how many WiMAX operators a market can actually support.
As a result, it would be more beneficial if regulators handed out fewer WiMAX licenses and granted those licensees more spectrum to offer better quality services rather than crowding the market with too many under-resourced licensees.
“That is a proposition, I am quite sure, that even Nilsson would find himself in agreement.”

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