The WiMAX way

With WiMAX offering a more efficient and flexible way of delivering broadband internet access, Delta Partners looks at the development of the technology and the commercial opportunities it offers.

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By  Federico Membrillera, Ingrid Flores, and Matthew Beckner Published  February 13, 2008

With WiMAX offering a more efficient and flexible way of delivering broadband internet access, Delta Partners looks at the development of the technology and the commercial opportunities it offers.

The MENA region's low broadband penetration represents a large untapped market that operators are keen to target, especially as regulators start opening up the fixed arena to expand connectivity. Numerous WiMAX licences have been awarded to date and several more are expected in countries like Qatar, Egypt and Oman in the near future and there are also several deployments already underway.

Furthermore, if the technology lives up to its promise of full mobility, the whole industry will be shaken up as new entrants join the market and fixed and mobile players are forced to compete head-on.

For WiMAX, an IP (Internet Protocol) standard-based wireless access technology represents a new, more cost efficient way to provide broadband services to end-users.

WiMAX is an all-IP standard based, wireless broadband technology designed for data that acts as a wireless last-mile extension of IP infrastructure. This allows WiMAX to leverage on existing IP network equipment and take full advantage of IP-based innovations.

The technology was originally designed for fixed data connectivity, but the latest revision (IEEE 802.16e) allows for nomadic and mobile services. This will pit WiMAX against different technologies as it progresses from fixed to nomadic to mobile in its evolution.

In a fixed setting, WiMAX can be utilised as a ‘gap in the wire' to provide DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) like services. For providing standard internet services, WiMAX will offer DSL like-speeds but will but will struggle to cost-effectively provide bandwidth intensive services such as IPTV, particularly as a mass market application.

Since the MENA region is largely dominated by satellite TV, the demand for alternative services is expected to be limited. Therefore, the principle end-user WiMAX device will be the PC, enabled through WiMAX CPE (customer premise equipment). The primary service over this connection will be internet access.

Additionally, the use of analogue telephone adaptors (ATAs) will allow VoIP services through WiMAX CPE using a standard phone, thereby enhancing revenue generating potential.

In a nomadic setting, WiMAX can be used to offer an ‘on the go' connection allowing Wi-Fi-like services over a greater coverage area and with quality of service guarantees.

The principle end-user device will continue to be the PC, which will be enabled by a PCMCIA card inserted directly into the PC, and the primary WiMAX service will be internet access. Intel plans to provide WiMAX integrated chips to PC makers, giving direct access via a laptop similar, similar to Wi-Fi, without the need for additional equipment.

Large network and device vendors (Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung) plan to launch WiMAX enabled devices by late 2008 or early 2009, allowing nomadic users to access their WiMAX network over PDA-like devices. This would permit more data-rish applications such as video streaming and music downloads to be offered over the network to highly portable devices.

In a mobile setting, WiMAX will offer mobile data services similar to 3.5G mobile technologies such as HSPA and EV-DO but at higher speeds and and potentially lower network costs. True cellular handover for data services is unlikely anytime soon since first generation devices are not planned until late 2008. Even when handover is available, there are currently few data applications that would benefit from it.

Therefore the end-user device will likely be a mobile phone with integrated WiMAX / GSM, utilising a GSM network for voice handover and WiMAX for nomadic data services. The principle WiMAX for nomadic data service will continue to be internet access, though by that time data-rich applications should have matured, offering a wide array of value added services such as video on demand, peer-to-peer gaming, and video conferencing.

Why WiMAX?

The decision to choose WiMAX, as with any technology, is a matter of balancing the unique advantages of the technology with the type of market and range of services an operator is looking to target. Though this is fundamentally a multi-dimensional decision, it is easiest to analyse using the fixed, nomadic and mobile distinctions.

Fixed deployments will represent the bulk of WiMAX offerings for the rest of the decade. These deployments will be targeted mainly in emerging markets where broadband penetration is still low and fixed-line infrastructure is poor, offering fixed internet and voice services. In this setting, WiMAX will compete against DSL and fibre.

WiMAX is essentially a DSL replacement with no real differentiation as a fixed service. In markets where wireline connectivity is low and poor in quality, WiMAX offers the greatest benefits. WiMAX is both less expensive and faster to deploy than copper line commonly used for DSL, while offering similar data speeds for broadband internet services.

The current high cost of CPE devices represents the largest single factor limiting the adoption of WiMAX in most emerging markets. Current prices for outdoor CPE (US$350-$500) and indoor CPE ($250-$300) will require most operators to offer entry subsidies to attract new customers. This is likely to change as CPE prices, particularly on indoor models, continue to fall.

The expressed target of several vendors is a $100 CPE, which could be reached in late 2008, permitting mass-market WiMAX deployments across emerging markets.

Fibre can also be seen as a competitive technology, as some fixed line providers will choose to invest in laying fibre to the home (FTTH) or fibre to the curb (FTTC) to offer high-speed devices both WiMAX and DSL are incapable of offering.

Fibre is considered a ‘future proof' technology in that it has the highest bandwidth potential of any known technology, but is more likely to be used in developed markets where broadband penetration is already high. However, it is already being deployed in several GCC countries where large real estate developments are utilising the technology.

WiMAX will not be able to compete with fibre in terms of speed but will be much faster to deploy allowing new entrants to capture much needed market share and return on investment more quickly. It also has the added benefit of evolving into a nomadic or mobile network in order to differentiate itself from purely fixed technologies like fibre.

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