Down the broadband highway, WiMAX makes snail`s progress

Telcos may have begun their WiMAX rollouts, but the results are yet to show.

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Updated: May 30, 2008 8:44 AM
Down the broadband highway, WiMAX makes snail`s progress

Telcos may have begun their WiMAX rollouts, but the results are yet to show.

Major telecom operators like Reliance Communications and Tata Teleservices may have begun their Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access or WiMAX rollouts, but the results are yet to show in full measure.

Consider this. Tata Teleservices which deployed its first WiMAX network in Bangalore in March, and is expecting to gather a subcsriber base of about 2 lakh by the end of the year, has enrolled just about 7,000 customers in the city.

"This technology is a replacement for the current wireline internet present in the country. For a distance of about 1.5 km, it is highly effective. It is not only available at high speeds but the costs are also comparable to the wireline or broadband services in the country," explains Prateek Pashine, vice-president, planning broadband and retail business, Tata Communications.

Reliance WiMAX is also operational at a few places in India — including Bangalore and Pune — and is planning a large-scale deployment in the next year. "We are still waiting for the policy structure to be in place before large amounts of investments in this space," says a Reliance Communications spokeperson.

India's leading telecom operator, Bharti Airtel, has also forayed into the game, though it has not rolled out services yet. It aims to deploy WiMax nets in 300 towns. "We see good potential in this area, but we are not very active in this space as yet," says Sanjay Kapoor, president, mobile services, Airtel.

WiMax is said to be Wi-Fi on steroids since it can provide broadband wireless access (BWA) up to 30 miles (50 km) for fixed stations, and 3-10 miles (5-15 km) for mobile stations. In contrast, the WiFi/802.11 wireless local area network standard is limited in most cases to only 100-300 feet.

Analysts, however, are skeptical of this growth. Research and advisory firm Gartner predicts that India will have 6.9 million mobile and fixed WiMAX connections by end 2011. It cautions that India will remain a niche market for this technology until 2009.

As mobile frequencies will not be available in the short-term, Gartner does not expect mobile WiMAX rollouts to be available at larger scales before 2009, at the earliest. Therefore, most WiMAX connections in the short- and mid-terms will be for nomadic or fixed wireless applications.

At present, internet service providers (ISPs) in the country are using the 3.3 GHz spectrum for WiMAX roll out. In November 2007, the Department of Telecom (DoT) decided that it would auction the 3G and WiMAX Spectrum. For 3G, the Indian government allocated 30 MHz of bandwidth in the 2100 MHz band. Therefore, there will be three or six licenses released dependent on the government's decision on whether 5 MHz or 10 MHz will be given to each license holder. The government also decided to auction three WiMAX licenses in the 2.5 GHz band with 10 MHz each.

Alok Shende, head, IT and telecom, Ovum India, says: "WiMAX is a good technology for short-range use. However, for longer and more efficient usage, 3G will be more feasible as it has more carpet area." Naresh Singh, principal research analyst, Gartner, concurs: "In the near-term, the Indian WiMAX market is not very promising. Gartner advises carriers to focus on the enterprise market and high-end residential subscribers. At the present time, it is not clear if vendors would benefit from risk-sharing models with Indian operators.Overall, the long-term potential of the Indian WiMAX market heavily relies on spectrum allocation, WiMAX ecosystem maturation, and the timeliness of WiMAX and 3G licenses."

The technology was pegged by the government as a means to enhance rural connectivity, given ease in deploying wireless technology. State-owned BSNL, India's largest telecommunications company, has also partnered with Soma Networks in a revenue-sharing deal to deploy their WiMax network across four states till now, which will be extended to give a pan-India reach.

"This is a losing proposition, with the government not earning profits out of this venture. There are gaps in the technology and structure of policy deployed. There's a tough road ahead for this service," quips an official of BSNL.

Gartner believes that due to the limitations of the spectrum allocation, the only deployment for a sustained business case is to bring WiMAX broadband (point-to-point 802.16-2004) to rural centers in villages or schools, hospitals and so on. From the access point, individual access will then be available via a Wi-Fi mesh. In urban areas, WiMAX can be utilised to offer mobile and semi-mobile broadband to consumers and enterprise customers.

Shende also puts forward that in rural areas the low levels of PC penetration, will hinder the growth of WiMAX. "The next level of communication will be through mobile phones, for which 3G can also be used to transfer data, both technologies relatively perform the same functions, 3G is predominantly for voice while WiMAX is for transfer data. However 3G-enabled devices will also be able to transfer data," he says.

However, Pashine adds: "Operators are looking at gaining large chunks of spectrum for voice, and additional spectrum is required for data, so it is unlikely that WiMAX will be threatened by 3G."

The timeline and bandwidth of 3G and WiMAX licenses will heavily impact the future mobile broadband access market share in between 3G and WiMAX. The permission for mobility in the WiMAX license will also influence the future of WiMAX growth. These indicators will only be clarified once the policy matters on WiMAX become clear.

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