Waiting for mobile WiMAX

For almost two years Primus Canada has been conducting limited mobile WiMAX trials in two Ontario cities, trying to determine if and when broadband wireless service will be brought to Canadians.

The answer, according to the president of the carrier, is that maybe one trial will be expanded by the end of this year. But commercial deployment likely won’t come until at least 2010.

The same is likely for other WiMAX spectrum holders in Canada, which include Craig Wireless of Winnipeg and the Inukshuk partnership.

Meanwhile in the United States, Clearwire is pushing ahead with its Clear broadband wireless service using the 802.16e technology in Portland, Ore., and Baltimore (where its currently called Xohm) and promising to expand to more cities soon.

Mobile WiMAX promises fast downloads of Internet Web sites, music and video to people on the move is being trialed in a number of countries, and in commercial deployment in a few. Development of the technology has been brewing for several years, with deployments in a number of countries including Korea and Pakistan. But in 2008 interest began to heat up, with an increasing number of carriers starting trials.

At this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, several equipment manufacturers have announced products, expanding the number of base stations, USB dongles and chipsets capable of handling the allotted 2.2, 2.5 or 3.5Ghz spectrum.

Also at the conference, Intel and Alcatel-Lucent announced the creation of WiMAX Ensure, an interoperability program for testing mobile WiMAX devices to strengthen the emerging technology’s ecosystem of supporting products.

But in Canada, interest among carriers and service providers in mobile WiMAX is tepid.

That may be justified. One analyst recently forecast that demand for mobile WiMAX will drop this year from the recession and competition from another high speed technology LTE. This week Verizon Wireless announced it will start this year rolling out an LTE network in the U.S.

In addition, Cintia Garza, a WiMAX market analyst for Maravedis Inc., a Montreal-based research firm, said Industry Canada may be a restraining factor. It will convert fixed WiMAX spectrum for mobile spectrum, but in return licence-holders have to surrender part of their spectrum to the government.

One Canadian licence holder told her that is a deterrent, Garza said. Still, last November Craig Wireless announced Industry Canada converted its Vancouver WiMAX spectrum to mobile, believed to be a first. Craig has some experience with the technology, which it is trying to roll out in Greece, Norway and California. However, the company is in financial trouble and it isn’t clear how soon it can capitalize on the Industry Canada move.

Last year Inukshuk, the fixed WiMAX partnership between Rogers Communications and Bell that brings broadband to underserved parts Canada, quietly ran a mobile WiMAX test in Toronto and Montreal.

It has made no public commitment about service. Primus Canada, in conjunction with its partner and spectrum holder, Mipps Inc., has been testing 802.16e technology for almost two years in Toronto and Hamilton with mixed results.

In an interview, Primus Canada president Ted Chislett said the Toronto trial with Motorola equipment has been “pretty good.” A few minutes later he said the tests, limited to eight cell sites and a few laptops with USB receiver-transmitter dongles, were “very promising.”

Driving around the city in a van, reception within unobstructed line of sight of a transmitter could go as far as 10 km., Chiselett said. In what he called a cluttered environment, reception was easily couple of kilometers. Download speeds were close to 7Mbps. Harder to test, he said, is reception inside buildings.

He’s waiting for Motorola to supply the next version of hardware and software to get more data.

However, the Hamilton trial using equipment from Alcatel-Lucent is “on hold pending new hardware and customer premise equipment.”

“We weren’t happy with the performance” of the gear Primus got, Chislett said. “It was too intermittent. I think that was a matter of the equipment being more of a research project than production equipment,” he said. “I think we’ve been on the bleeding edge (with Alcatel-Lucent gear) and I’m waiting to get the next version of [customer premise] equipment to see if that can work.”

He may be waiting a while. Denise Ponyik-Dale, an Alcatel-Lucent spokesman based in the U.S., said Wednesday that the Primus Canada Hamilton trial “has been completed successfully.” Told that the carrier is expecting updated equipment, she said as far as she knows, “we have completed our contractural obligations” to Primus Canada.

This isn’t merely a matter of performance. Ideally, Chislett acknowledged, he’d like to have more than one supplier to choose from if service goes ahead.

What else is holding up spectrum holders? Money, for one. Clearwire has the benefit of some US$3 billion from backers including Intel, which makes mobile WiMAX-capable Centrino 2 chipsets for laptops. Once Primus Canada gets trial results it’s happy with, Chislett said he’ll have to come up with a business case for selling service. Then Mipps, as the infrastructure provider, will have to find the money to build the network. As Chislett pointed out, in today’s financial environment that won’t be easy.

Then there’s the chicken-and-egg problem: Which comes first, the availability of mobile WiMAX-capable PC cards, USB dongles and laptops, or the network people can use them on? Spokespersons for Hewlett Packard Canada and Toshiba of Canada said their companies have no current plans to bring 802.16e-equipped laptops here because of the lack of networks.

Doug Cooper, country manager for Intel Canada, agreed in an interview Wednesday that device makers will hold back until there’s sufficient mobile WiMAX coverage from carriers. He said the chipmaker is “pretty bullish” on the technology. However, he thinks Canadian providers are waiting to see how much progress Clearwire makes.

But he believes waiting is a mistake. “We also think there’s a huge opportunity in the current economic situation to roll out broadband wireless data services, because WiMAX will not only be higher performance, it will also be lower cost” to carriers and users.

Michael Dixon, Motorola Canada’s vice-president of wireless networks, said it’s frustrating to see Canadian operators lagging behind the efforts of others around the world. Still, he said, “it’s not unusual. Canada is often one or two years behind the U.S. … it’s expected.”

As for Primus Canada, Chislett hopes to expand the Toronto test into a market trial later this year.

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