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February 12, 2008

It Works, But Is It WiMAX?

By Charlotte Wolter, Contributing Editor

With WiMAX 802.16d and fixed WiMAX now completed, and WiMAX Forum-certified products available from several vendors, the question arises, how is the new technology, billed as a significant new broadband delivery pipe, performing?



 
In the last month, several service providers have launched voice services over WiMAX, while another larger provider of wireless services for business, Sparkplug Inc., will announce hosted VoIP over WiMAX shortly. Their experiences, though early, appear to confirm that the technology is delivering on at least some of its promises.
 
However, the technology they are using is not always a full implementation of WiMAX, and some question when, if ever, they will need to deploy networks with all the WiMAX bells and whistles, including Mobile WiMAX.
 
Wireless in Madison
TDS Telecommunications Corp. has just launched a commercial wireless-broadband service in Madison, Wisc., using what it characterizes as 802.16e WiMAX. The new service is using the 4Motion product by Alvarion (News - Alert) Inc. in the 2.5 GHz frequency band. The company did market trials with a “preWiMAX” system, also by Alvarion, for nearly a year with employees before moving ahead with the 4Motion product.
 
TDS is offering service within just a two-mile ring, “until the network starts to mature and we can push the limits,” says Scott Meier, product management, WiMAX deployment, TDS. “We have seen some obstructions that do block us, but it is going though most of the time.” TDS tested the system through the summer, when leaves might have been a problem — wet leaves are a known issue for many services operating at the 2.5 GHz frequencies — and in the winter. Despite these concerns, “We see the signal acting like water, and it will go around obstructions,” Meier says. However, “where trees are placed with regard to the subscriber unit does make a difference.”
 
TDS, the ILEC for its area, is offering phone service over the WiMAX connections. The voice is IP while on the WiMAX network, though TDS’ legacy circuit-switched equipment provides call control. A Genband Inc. G6 Universal Media Gateway (News - Alert) links the VoIP to the traditional phone system. Innomedia Inc. terminal adapters are used as customer premises equipment. Pricing for broadband is 2 Mbps for $50, 4 Mbps for $55 and 6 Mbps for $60.
 
The Alvarion 4Motion system is not yet certified by the WiMAX Forum as compliant with 802.1e. The forum is poised to do its first flights of compliance and performance testing this quarter. Other products from Alvarion have been certified for the earlier fixed version of WiMAX. “Our equipment essentially has been widely deployed all of last year and is ungradable to full 16e as soon as WiMAX testing is done,” said Ashish Sharma, senior director of business development, Alvarion.
 
Sharma points out that, like some other customers, the TDS deployment is not using the mobile capabilities at this time. “They need to replace copper loops. They also depend on AT&T to provide voice lines. Now, using WiMAX, they can provide voice and broadband both.” He adds that, in other deployments, service providers are using 802.16e for the ability to deliver a reliable signal rather than mobile services.
 
TDS is a unit of Telephone and Data Systems Inc., a provider of communication services to more than 6 million customers in mid-sized cities, suburbs and rural areas across the United States.
 
WiMAX in Germany
NeckarCom Telekommunikation (News - Alert) GmbH, a regional service provider for Baden-Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany, has launched a commercial VoIP service over a WiMAX network that the company deployed to serve rural parts of its service area that had no DSL or other broadband. “We looked at different technologies and found the only reasonable technology to solve the problem of broadband for rural areas was WiMAX,” says Juergen Herrmann, managing director, NeckarCom.
 
Trials began in December 2006, with a preWiMAX product from Motorola, Inc., that operates at the 3.5 GHz frequencies specified in Germany for such services. NeckarCom tested the WiMAX for six months before offering voice services. “So far [the WiMAX] is working fine, which is astonishing because it is relatively new technology. It took a couple of months, but now it is running quite well,” Herrmann describes. “With GSM it took one to two years to get it into condition.”
 
Like the TDS service in Wisconsin, NeckarCom is not pushing the distance for services. Most customers are within 1 to 2 kilometers, which is less than two miles, from a WiMAX transmitter, and all can receive service of 3 Mbps. “It is sufficient for today, but maybe not in three, five or 10 years,” says Herrmann. The performance of the wireless was good enough to embolden Neckarcom to launch its full VoIP package over the new network. The new service includes all the features of NeckarCom’s existing voice offerings, but delivered via WiMAX, as well as a new combined voice-and-data offering.
 
Just Give Me Broadband
While TDS and NeckarCom trumpet their use of WiMAX, other service providers are reluctant to characterize themselves as using any particular technology.
 
“Customers rarely ask, ‘Is this WiMAX,’” says Jason Mendenhall, vice president of products for Sparkplug Inc., a provider of wireless broadband for business in major cities in the Midwest and West. “They say, ‘We need 5 megs. Can you get it to me?’”
 
Although Sparkplug has deployed preWiMAX products from Alvarion and Motorola Inc., Mendenhall does not see his company deploying WiMAX aggressively. “Are you going to go after a certain technology because it’s there and available, or will you continue to focus on service delivery?” he says.
 
“We don’t say we are WiMAX,” says Richard Kingston, CEO, BOB LLC, Business Only Broadband, a provider of broadband for business serving New York City and Chicago. “We are wireless broadband.” BOB uses a variety of technologies and frequencies, ranging from unlicensed spectrum to 11 GHz, 18 GHz and 23 GHz to provide high-reliability links for customers in the financial industry.
 
Although Sparkplug focuses on offering symmetrical services in the range of 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps for short distance, the company also at times provides high bandwidth for long distances. “If you do that, it is licensed 6 GHz to 18 GHz links with large dishes, and WiMAX will not help you do it. Frequency power does it.” And, he adds, “The end subscriber doesn’t care. They just want the throughput.”
 
Sparkplug is not waiting for WiMAX to make its next major move in business services. Soon it will announce a hosted VoIP PBX service based on the hosted offerings of established provider CommPartners Inc.
 
The Mobile Play
With several different fixed wireless technologies already delivering the 1 Mbps to 6 Mbps that is the bread and butter of business broadband, where does WiMAX fit in? The real advantage for using full 802.16e is for mobile, which will take some time to develop, say service providers. “I think WiMAX gets legs with Clearwire (News - Alert) and Sprint’s Xoom product,” says Mendenhall, noting that the two companies are in talks again after a brief split.
 
Although medium-sized service providers, such as TDS, mostly are not using the mobile capabilities now, that option is open in the future. The real issue is not Mobile WiMAX technology, but the entire ecosystem that has to develop around the new technology. “A lot of work goes into creating a full retail model so a subscriber can walk into a retail store in Madison, Wisconsin, and buy a wireless device they like, call the service provider and turn it on. Today the CPE for TDS has to be from a TDS source,” says Sharma. “Because the ecosystem is not there, they are not targeting that service today. They are targeting a simple voice line plus broadband access.”
 
Kingston says the main target for WiMAX is the 2.5 GHz part of the spectrum. “That is where we are going to see the bulk of capital dollars and the bulk of R&D dollars spent to deploy infrastructure,” he says, and I think it will be the mobile guys that do it.”
 
As for the 700 MHz spectrum now being auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “That is valuable spectrum. The propagation characteristics are tremendous,” says Kingston. “From a capital perspective, who has the billions to spend on that spectrum? AT&T and Verizon.”
 
Charlotte Wolter (News - Alert) is a TMCnet contributing editor. Wolter has been a technology journalist and analyst for 20 years, managing publications, writing articles and reports, and providing consultation about market trends. To view her columnist page, click here.
 
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