WiMax momentum builds

With the first WiMax wins being announced in the region and standards going through their final motions before ratification, WiMax is the wireless technology on everyone’s lips.

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By  Alex Ritman Published  October 16, 2005

|~|Saleh-Al-Abdooli_m.jpg|~|“WiMax is supported by widespread manufacturers, the Intels, Alcatels, Huaweis and the Motorolas. It is good to have such an established group when it comes to replacing equipment.” - Saleh Al Abdooli, general manager of network systems for Etisalat.|~|By the time you read this, the mobile WiMax standard, 802.16e, is expected to have been ratified. Following the standardisation of the fixed version, known as 802.16-2004, earlier in the year, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) has been working on the mobile variety, which is eagerly anticipated by network operators. Over in Spain, interoperability testing has already begun on the 802.16-2004 standard, and products are expected to be out by the end of 2005. Many suppliers are already diving ahead with the technology, offering unbadged WiMax equipment to regional operators who are happy to test the new wireless broadband waters. Etisalat in the UAE are taking WiMax very seriously. “It is a major milestone in our roadmap,” says Saleh Al Abdooli, Etisalat’s general manager of network systems. He confirms that a trial is currently underway with the fixed standard serving an Abu Dhabi neighbourhood with high speed wireless internet. “There are other technologies around,” admits Al Abdooli. These include Qualcomm’s CDMA2000 offering, which is expected to incorporate Flash-OFDMA technology following the company’s purchase of Flarion. Despite this other broadband wireless technology, Al Abdooli was adamant that Etisalat would be sticking to WiMax. “It is supported by widespread manufacturers, the Intels, Alcatels, Huaweis and the Motorolas. It is good to have such an established group when it comes to replacing equipment.” Another technology which is still pre-standardised is the 802.20, but this was hit hard when many suppliers switched to WiMax 802.16e. But while the fixed equipment is currently being tested, the bigger prize for Etisalat is mobile WiMax. The 802.16-2004 will allow for broadcast signals to a single point, but the mobile variety, expected to be called 802.16-2005, will provide wireless broadband to mobile users, allowing for seamless access from a chipped device as it moves around, either utilising a WiMax network, or Wi-Fi or cellular, depending which is available. “We have put out a request for information to international manufacturers Motorola, Alcatel, Huawei, ZTE, Samsung and Eticsson,” says Al Abdooli. He expects the chosen vendor to be named by the end of the year, with trials taking place in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Depending on the testing, Etisalat will choose either fixed or mobile WiMax. “We will see the maturity of the emerging technology,” says Al Abdooli. If it is deemed ready, Etisalat is prepared to completely leapfrog the 802.16-2004 to the new mobile technology before standardisation. “It is not 100% sticking to the standard, but the pre-standard equipment is very close to what will eventually be ratified.” He predicts that by mid-2006, Etisalat will have a WiMax deployment, either fixed or mobile. Should the emerging 802.16e technology not meet Etisalat’s criteria, Al Abdooli says they will ensure the eventual upgrade to mobile WiMax will only require a software addition. Manish Gupta, VP marketing and alliances at Aperto Networks, doesn’t think this software upgrade to mobile WiMax will be possible. “There is no such thing as software upgradability, it has no technical merit. The infrastructure is already in place, you just have to slide in an e-plate.” He describes the upgrade as an “easy addition” without any changes to the overall infrastructure. Aperto has recently deployed equipment based on the fixed 802.16-2004 technology to Mobily in Saudi Arabia, supplying the GSM operator with its PacketWave broadband wireless systems in the four largest cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Damman and Khobar. Gupta says the choice is really dependent on what the operator wants to offer. “If an ISP wants to get into the mobile market, then wait for e. If you want to keep mobile on a GSM network, fixed is fine.” Noel Kirkaldy, Motorola’s EMEA manager for wireless broadband, disagrees with those, such as Aperto, pushing the fixed standard. “There’s only one quarter between e equipment coming through and 802.16-2004 being available.” For Motorola, which Kirkaldy describes as a maverick in solely focusing on e, the timing between the two is so short, “that most of the leading players who have that long term vision are looking to bet the farm on e, which offers at least 20% more efficiency.” He says that Motorola will have fully compatible, if not standardised, equipment out by the second quarter of 2006. But for IDC’s Mark Rotter, we are a long way off before WiMax will be available in the mobile realm. “It will be three to five years before it is reliable,” he says. For him, it is not necessarily the best technology that becomes successful, but the one with the best marketing. “Look at Wi-Fi, it is a disastrous standard, but every laptop has it.” Rotter thinks it essential to learn from the mistakes of 3G and Wi-Fi when considering WiMax. “Wi-Fi took no time to standardise, which left it in a mess, while 3G is incredibly standardised, and took a long time.” He believes it is a question of hype versus standard. “Fortunately, the WiMax standardising has been very visible to industry folk.” For the time being, while the complexities of the mobile standard are tackled, Rotter sees the best use of WiMax in backhauling, rather than access technology. “I’d be happy to use it within an operator’s network, for backhauling mobile traffic or for temporary or redundant connections that need to be provisioned quickly.” But commercial use, like across the pre-WiMax networks launched in various US cities, Rotter doesn’t believe is currently profitable for operators. “It’s more valuable to vendors as testing exercises.” But the tier one operators are taking it very seriously, says Redline Communications’ VP marketing and product management, Keith Doucet. “I think every tier one and tier two has made enquiries, some more seriously than others, some are making it a condition that they need to deploy this year.” Redline has struck a deal with its technology partner Intracom to supply pre-WiMmax equipment to ITC in Saudi Arabia. “We think it’s the first serious deployment in the Middle East. It’s all WiMax, all for delivery in 2005 and will involve quite a few thousand sets of units, going out to businesses and eventually the residential market,” says Doucet. It is based on the fixed standard, but will have some flexibility and will allow the CPU to be moved around. “You can take it with you to the office, for example.” While at the time of writing Redline products hadn’t been certified, Doucet confirms that they have reached the stage where they can make commitments to operators. “The ITC deployment will be happening in the next couple of months, in anticipation of certification.” The driver in the region is the need for broadband, with the incumbents having left some gaps in the market space, says Doucet. “Because of WiMax, the competitors have created tension. There’s that real need to move,” says Doucet, adding that Redline had recently signed a deal with a regional incumbent under threat from a competitor. The interest is so high, he claims, that Redline has had to build a department just to deal with the RFPs and RFIs it is responding to. “The reason I know that the interest is serious is the individuals involved, there’s the network management team, the cell planning team, they all know it’s real now.” Doucet is confident that 802.16e products will not be out next year, and that there is still a lot of market to chase in the meantime with 802.16-2004. “There’s always the question that if mobility is round the corner, why invest in fixed and be left orphaned when clearly 802.16e is going to come and serve a wider market.” He says that Redline will upgrade the basestation so that it can support 802.16-2004 and the mobility of 802.16e. “It’s about investment preservation,” he adds. “It’s about moving now for the market today.”||**||

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