Standard Bearer

The fixed standard is here and products are just round the corner, though with the imminent ratification of mobile WiMax, operators looking to deploy the wide area wireless technology have to decide whether to make the investment now, or wait for the 802.16e products to emerge.

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By  Tawanda Chihota Published  December 10, 2005

|~|Kilkardy200.jpg|~|Motorola's Kirkaldy claims that the move from 'D' to 'E' is not an upgrade at all, it is a rip out. |~|Suppliers that have ventured into the development of fixed and mobile versions of WiMax technologies have different stories to tell, some arguing that an investment in the fixed ‘D’ standard now can then be easily upgraded once mobile ‘E’ products appear. Other suppliers claim they have skipped the fixed version of the technology altogether, viewing it as greatly inferior to the mobile iteration and are focusing instead on what they call the “real prize” of the mobile WiMax variety. The ‘D’ technology, labelled 802.16-2004 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, will allow for broadcast signals to a single point, but the mobile ‘E’ 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 from one coverage area to another, either utilising a WiMax network, or Wi-Fi or cellular, depending which is available. “We believe very strongly that there will be one quarter between [certified] ‘D’ equipment coming through and ‘E’ equipment being available,” says Noel Kirkaldy, Motorola’s director of broadband wireless in the Middle East. He claims that Motorola will have pre-standardised ‘E’ equipment in the market by 2Q06. A one-quarter difference in a 10— to 15—year business plan is such a finite length of time then, if Kirkaldy is correct, it is barely worth an operator looking at a fixed deployment. Other major manufacturers appear to share this opinion as well, he claims. “Most of the leading suppliers who have a long-term vision are really looking to bet the farm on ‘E’ rather than a ‘D’ interim,” says Kirkaldy. He labels the suppliers pushing the fixed standard as the ‘D crowd’. Naming names he lists Alvarion, Airspan and Aperto as members of this group. “Some of the tier one suppliers, the Ericssons, the Siemens, the Alcatels, are all basically OEMing from some of these smaller players who have come up with a niche design.” In September 2005 Nortel signed an agreement to incorporate Airspan’s 802.16-2004 technologies within its own products. Ericsson also has an OEM deal with Airspan, while Nokia, Siemens and Alcatel have similar arrangements with Alvarion. “But all of the ‘D crowd’, whether they admit it or not, are working on an ‘E’ solution,” claims Kirkaldy. He predicts that the fixed 802.16-2004 standard will gradually fade away over the course of time, and that the smaller players could be the acquisition targets of the larger tier ones looking for a fast track of their own development. However, network operators in the region do not appear to hold such polarised positions opinions regarding the WiMax standards under development. The UAE’s Etisalat, for example, is prepared to invest in either fixed or mobile WiMax technology depending on which is ready in line with its own plans. “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. The mobile trial is set to commence in early 2006, with a vendor due to be selected by the end of November this year. ||**|||~|Saleh-Al-Abdooli200.jpg|~|WiMax is a major milestone in Etisalat's roadmap, says Saleh Al Abdooli, GM of Etisalat's network systems. |~|“We are still evaluating the request for information (RFI), which will also include the trial,” says Al Abdooli. Suppliers included in the RFI include Motorola, Alcatel, Huawei, ZTE, Samsung and Ericsson, amongst others. The trials are set to take place in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with the aim of testing WiMax in respect of the technology’s level of maturity and readiness for commercial use, Al Abdooli says. “We have a clear strategy to always adopt a standardised solution that is also supported by multiple vendors. We’re not going to have a solution providing a base station from Motorola if the only handset that works with it is Motorola,” Al Abdooli explains. Motorola’s Kirkaldy insists that the main advantage of mobile WiMax is efficiency gains. “In fairness to the ‘D crowd’ they are putting the best spin on it that they can but most vendors themselves admit that there is a minimum of 20% more efficiency out of ‘E’ than ‘D’,” says Kirkaldy. This translates to cost-savings. The distance from the base station is where the real power of ‘E’ will come into effect; with the further away one is from the nearest base station reducing the quality of service or data rate that can be offered in the network. “This is where ‘E’ comes into its own,” says Kirkaldy. With ‘E’, a higher data rate can be held, further from the base station, allowing operators to offer a better service level agreement from a wider range than with ‘D’. “Most of the major operators that have that ability to wait out that quarter are looking to move towards ‘E’. It’s no secret, we can give you a number of operators that have that premise in mind,” says Kirkaldy. Questions arise regarding the long-term viability of the smaller manufacturers backing the fixed standard in the market. “These are US$100-US$300 million companies, and who in their right mind is going to place a US$300-US$500 million order on companies of that magnitude,” says Kirkaldy. Despite the enthusiasm shown by Motorola and deployment plans by Etisalat, Mark Rotter at research company IDC in Dubai believes there is still a long way to go until WiMax becomes available in the mobile realm. “It will be three to five years before it is reliable,” Rotter forecasts, believing it is not necessarily the best technology that will prevail, but the one with the best marketing message. “Look at Wi-Fi, it is a disastrous standard, but every laptop has it.” In the meantime, as suppliers tackle the complexities of the mobile standard, Rotter sees the best use of WiMax technology not in access technology, but backhauling 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.” Etisalat is looking at this very use for its upcoming WiMax deployment. “We are demonstrating backhauling for connectivity between different locations,” explains Al Abdooli. Aperto Networks, part of Kirkaldy’s ‘D crowd’, has deployed equipment for just this purpose in Saudi Arabia. Across the four largest cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Damman and Khobar, the supplier has installed its PacketWave broadband access systems, based on the fixed 802.16-2004 technology for second network operator Mobily. “They are using WiMax to connect their base stations, instead of microwave technology which is very expensive,” explains Yaman Abousalah, Cisco Systems’ territory manager in Saudi Arabia. He says that Mobily is not licensed to provide WiMax to the public or businesses at this point. ||**|||~|Keith-Doucet200.jpg|~|Redline's Doucet says the company is providing pre-standardised fixed WiMax equipment in Saudi Arabia. |~|Manish Gupta, Aperto’s VP of marketing and alliances, believes WiMax is perfect for the Middle East. “The region’s infrastructure is limited (in scope) and many monopolies only just opening up to competition. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are two recent examples.” He is adamant that the fixed technology has its place in the market. “If an ISP wants to get into the mobile market, wait for ‘E’. If you want to keep mobile on a GSM network, fixed is fine.” Cisco, working with Canadian supplier Redline Communications is also providing pre-standardised fixed WiMax equipment to Integrated Telecom Company (ITC) in Saudi. “We think it’s the first serious deployment in the Middle East,” says Redline’s VP marketing and product management, Keith Doucet. “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.” While ITC hopes to eventually be able to deliver VoIP services, multi-casting and triple-play to its business and residential customers, the main priority for the deployment is for basic high-speed internet connectivity. “At the moment people just want their basic internet needs to be met,” says ITC CEO Mohammed Omar. “Residents want high-speed basic internet access and what businesses really want is secure connectivity between the different departments in their businesses.” The first phase of the ITC deployment is costing US$22 million, with completion and national broadband coverage set for April 2006. By January services are expected to be available to selected corporate customers and some members of the Saudi royal family. The move from a fixed ‘D’ WiMax deployment to ‘E’ is an issue with differing opinions among suppliers and operators. Al Abdooli at Etisalat believes that should next year’s deployment be made using fixed technology, the upgrade to mobile will be software driven. “Maybe in the initial stage they (suppliers) are not going to have full mobility in the ‘E’ version, but at a later stage they will.” Gupta at Aperto asserts that while an upgrade from ‘D’ to ‘E’ is relatively straightforward, it does require both software as well as hardware upgrades. “There is no such thing as software upgrading, it has no technical merit.” Gupta says that mobility-capable infrastructure is already in place with the fixed technology, with the only addition needed being an ‘E-Plate’ which can be slid in. “The upgrade is an easy addition, not requiring any changes to the overall infrastructure.” Not so, says Motorola’s Kirkaldy. “The move from ‘D’ to ‘E’ is not an upgrade at all, it’s a rip out and re-change.” Whatever the requirements for an upgrade, some operators in the region believe there is still not yet a case for the move to offer WiMax services at all. “We don’t have a WiMax strategy yet,” admits Abdulaziz Ibrahim Fakhroo, Qtel’s senior manager of wireless networks in Qatar. He says that the operator has yet to speak to anyone outside the company regarding the technology, refuting claims by suppliers, such as Redline’s Doucet, who suggest every tier one and tier two operator in the region has made enquiries. “We should have a strategy in two to three months, but at the moment we are firmly focussing on 3G,” says Fakhroo. Qtel is planning to commercially launch 3G services in 1Q06. ||**|||~||~||~|WiMax technology is not very complicated, claims Fakhroo. “But we have to be sure that the technology offered to our customers is a proven one, we don’t want to deploy just for the sake of it. Worldwide, WiMax doesn’t yet have a good vision.” The timing of the launch of mobile ‘E’ products could well be make or break for the fixed version. “If suppliers are delaying the launching of ‘E’ until the end of 2006 then I think there is a window for ‘D’ products,” says Etisalat’s Al Abdooli. Doucet at Redline is confident that products based on mobile WiMax will not be on shelves in 2006, giving significant market to chase in the meantime with fixed products. “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,” says Doucet. Redline Communications will upgrade the base station so that it can support 802.16-2004, and the mobility of ‘E’, says Doucet. “It’s about investment preservation. It’s about moving now for the market today.” ||**||

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