The future is WiMax
But the old guard remain defiant
THOUGH CYNICS don’t seem prepared to accept the inevitable, WiMax is fast gaining ground as a formidable alternative to conventional broadband connectivity. But whether this long-range wireless broadband technology would help or hurt current mobile networks is hard to call – at least for now.
However, what seems certain is that industry executives concerned about the faster than anticipated global adoption are closing ranks to scupper adoption.
Vodafone CE Arun Sarin – arguably the industry’s most influential figure – has for one not hidden his dislike for WiMax. Sarin’s call at the recent 3GSM world congress – tacitly urging the industry to snub WiMax and instead embrace the long-term evolution (LTE), a GSM standard taking 3G technology into the future – is the clearest indication yet that WiMax is shaking up the industry.
Says Sarin: “Although WiMax may well be a commercial reality in some markets, it’s far from being ‘prime time’. The industry as a whole should work faster with its plans for LTE.”
Craig Ehrlich, chairman of the GSM Association (the body representing the indus- try’s interests) echoed Sarin’s view. “Despite the hype around WiMax, it’s not that great a technology. I’d accept if you perhaps said that of CDMA technology (CDMA is the acronym for code division multiple access, the technology underpinning 3G).
“Besides, handsets that conform to WiMax aren’t in abundance. We (the association) don’t have an official position on WiMax. Our members are free to adopt it if they like.”
However, the position taken by protagonists such as Huawei, Motorola, Nokia and Intel is in stark contrast to that of Sarin and Ehrlich. The growing number of telecoms start-ups – notably those in emerging markets – investing in multi- billion- dollar WiMax networks is another indication that operators are increasingly leaning towards the technology.
“On being granted licences, start-ups – especially those in emerging markets – are faced with daunting deadlines by when they should have deployed their network and become operational. The cost and ease with which operators are able to deploy WiMax is the major drawcard. You don’t expect them to start digging the ground to lay cables, which in some cases are vandalised within days,” says Andy McKinnon, responsible for Motorola’s WiMax business development in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Wateen Telecom, set to launch fixedwireless services in Pakistan, has just concluded what industry insiders say is the biggest WiMax network rollout to date covering more than 17 major cities in Pakistan, including, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.
“I can’t imagine how long it would take us to lay fibre in a country that has close to 170m inhabitants and has a poor fixed line penetration,” Tariq Malik, CE of Wateen Telecoms, told a round table discussion on the periphery of the 3GSM congress.
Neotel, SA’s second national operator, recently awarded Motorola a contract entrusting the US-based telecoms group with the task of planning Neotel’s WiMax and CDMA networks. “Emerging markets are providing the required mass adoption critical to setting future technology trends,” says Stephano Mattiello, Motorola’s regional sales director in charge of sub-Saharan Africa.
The fact that the Internet-enabling 3G and HSDPA technologies offered by panAfrican operators MTN and Vodacom are only confined to a few selected markets is a compelling commercial opportunity that WiMax will seek to exploit.
Says Mattiello: “What people need in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa is basic connectivity and mobility. The argument that there are only a few WiMax-enabled handsets in circulation can’t hold for long, because handset manufacturers were now tailoring their new products around WiMax.”
Whereas the early versions of WiMax would only work from a fixed position – with a receiver mounted on top of a building – Mattiello says the latest version can reach out to smaller devices that are in motion, including laptops.
Telecoms analyst Arthur Goldstuck adds a different dimension to the debate. “From a purely commercial viewpoint, WiMax poses a serious threat to the profitability of established operators. They (established operators) are burdened with legacy networks whose cost of upgrading would run into billions of dollars.
“Faced with competition from new entrants boasting the so-called next generation networks, they have no choice but to stifle growth of new entrants.” Goldstuck adds that investors are keen to pump money into wireless networks as opposed to investing in copper or fibre optic networks.
* Mwanza attended the 3GSM congress in Barcelona, Spain, courtesy of Motorola
Emerging markets are fast embracing WiMax. Stephano Mattiello