Craig

The country’s first mobile WiMAX network is a step closer to signing up business and residential subscribers.

Craig Wireless Systems Ltd. said Tuesday that the first phase of its new Vancouver wireless system is finished, with commercial deployment expected early in the second quarter.

“We’re absolutely elated” that the downtown Vancouver coverage is done, said Robert Vandenbos, the company’s chief strategist.

“We cannot wait. We’re getting ready with the parade to sign up that first paying customer.”

For the time being, however, only select members of the media and other interested people will be able to give it a test drive using WiMAX-enabled USB or desktop modems.

Initially, along with a fixed outdoor antenna for businesses, that’s how subscribers will get service. However, Vandenbos said there’s a good chance that later this year Craig will be selling handsets as well, putting the company eventually up against seven cellular and wireless providers in one of the most competitive markets in North America.

That includes incumbents BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp., and soon-to-launch startups Wind Mobile and Mobilicity. Cableco Shaw Communications will likely join next year, as eventually Novus Wireless.

Asked how Craig will appeal to businesses, Vandenbos emphasized WiMAX’s speed and the ability to access the network around Vancouver. “The speeds will be four to five times greater” than the newest Bell, Rogers and Telus networks, he said.

The trio say their networks can get download up to 21 Megabits per second (Mbps), but only under ideal conditions. The more people on the network the slower it gets. Vandenbos said Craig’s WiMAX service will average 6 Mbps, with bursts up to 10 Mbps.

The completion of the first stage of the network has been a long time coming for the company, which has been planning for several years to switch to the speedy WiMAX technology from its fixed legacy wireless service in the lower B.C. mainland and Winnipeg.

Vandenbos said WiMAX service will debut in Winnipeg later this year. Also later this year coverage will be extended to the lower mainland, and after that to Vancouver Island and the B.C. interior.

Having service only in two provinces could be a limiting factor to some potential subscribers who would want to use their devices on the road. The only other holders of WiMAX spectrum are BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, who so far have yet to put it into commercial use. The two carriers currently use a proprietary pre-WiMAX technology on their shared Inukshuk service to underserved areas of the country. They have no plans to use their WiMAX spectrum in cities, where they already have other high speed wireless networks.

However, Vandenbos hopes Craig Wireless will have a roaming agreement with the two U.S. WiMax carriers, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Clearwire Corp. “in the very near future.” Clearwire’s Clear service is offered in Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Vandenbos wouldn’t divulge how Craig’s WiMAX service will be priced, but said it will be similar to Clear’s offerings, which has home, mobile and business plans.

For businesses, Clear Professional packages start at US$55 a month for unlimited use, download speeds of up to 4 Mbps and four e-mail addresses. The US$120 a month plan for two persons has a 30 Gb a month data limit and promises maximum download speeds of up to 6 Mbps. There are also activation fees and minimum contract periods.

Last fall Craig Wireless said the Vancouver network, built and managed by Motorola Canada, would be up and running in December. It has been, said Vandenbos, but the announcement was only made Tuesday.

To most industry analysts, WiMAX, or wireless interoperability for microwave access, is a true fourth generation (4G) wireless technology, matched only by Long Term Evolution, otherwise known as LTE. Most Canadian carriers use HSPA+, considered a 3.5G technology.

WiMAX is a the commercial name for a wide area broadband technology based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.16 standard that was has been used for years as a fixed wireless backhaul solution by enterprises and by cable and DSL carriers. However, a mobile version has allowed WiMAX to be used by carriers to compete for with cable and DSL for Internet subscribers. Sprint and Clearwire teamed to build North America’s first WiMAX network.

One problem WiMAX networks have compared to their cellular competitors is a lack of handsets, which in part stems from WiMAX’s history as a data-only, fixed wireless technology. Nokia had a WiMAX handset, the N810, which has been cancelled. The only other WiMAX handset on the market now is made by HTC for Russia’s Yota wireless network.

However, recently Sprint and Clearwire said they will get handsets by the middle of the year.Vandenbos was “encouraged” to hear that news. “As soon as they area available we will be following suit.”

That will be welcome news, says Robert Syputa, a senior analyst at Maravedis Inc., a wireless broadband market research firm. Without a handset, he said, Craig Wireless would face “limited prospects” because of all the competition in Vancouver.

“There was some expectation there would be [WiMAX] phones out at the beginning of this year,” he said in an interview. But handset makers are waiting for the number of WiMAX subscribers to rise and make it worth their while. In the meantime they are busy filling orders for handsets from the majority of the world’s carriers using technologies such as HSPA and GSM.

“There should be a dozen handsets that could work on the Clearwire network by the end of the year,” Syputa predicted.

Hopefully, they would also work on the same frequencies as Craig Wireless.

 

 



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