WiMAX gets in gear in Hamilton

Hamilton will soon host Canada’s first WiMAX network trial. WiMAX, which has been slow to realize its considerable promise, now has a chance to prove its viability. The equipment is coming from Alcatel-Lucent, the spectrum concession from Mipps Inc., with Primus acting as the carrier.

Hamilton was picked because it is a workable size and close to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). And Canada was chosen over possible U.S. sites because Canadian regulators have been more generous in handing out 3.5 GHz spectrum than their U.S. counterparts.

Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, sees this as a good opportunity for Primus. “This is a whole different ball game,” he said. “At present Primus is mostly wholesale — it resells stuff. This opens the door to low-cost mobile VoIP over WiMAX that won’t require a Bell, Rogers or Telus network.”

Maybe so, but both Joe Boutros, president of Mipps, and Ted Chislett, president of Primus Canada, were careful not to overstate the present situation.

“The license is for fixed wireless,” said Mr. Boutros. “We cannot promote this as mobile voice and must adhere to the rules and policies of Industry Canada.”

Primus’ Chislett echoed Boutros’ caution. “This is for high-speed Internet,” he said. “The global 3.5 spectrum can interfere with cellular and cordless phones. Testing and certification of the gear by Industry Canada is underway now.”

The trial, which is expected to cost $5 million, will rely on a small group of users to test the viability of the technology. At present wireless access for a laptop to 802.16e-2005 (3.5 GHz) would be enabled by a PCMCIA card.

Tauschek remains optimistic that big changes are in place. “This will alter the landscape,” he said, “but it will take a few years.” Part of the reason for this is that the gear isn’t there yet — not so much on the infrastructure side as with embedded chips for end users in laptops, PDAs and cell phones.

Mike Seymour, a VP in Alcatel-Lucent’s WiMAX Business Unit, is pleased with the progress so far. “The standard was only ratified at the end of ‘05, and from the end of ‘06 to the middle of ‘07 we’ve put in a good portion of the infrastructure in Hamilton. Normally something like this would take 12 to 18 months, and then another 12 to 18 months for the devices to follow.”

Will the accelerated deployment be matched by device rollouts? The first hurdle is embedded WiMAX wireless capabilities in laptop chipsets. Boutros says, “we’ll see laptop WiMAX chips by mid- or late ’08 as standard installations at the OEM level.”

Seymour says that the mobile WiMAX PCMCIA products based on “Wave 2 Profile” are more or less on plan. Wave 1 was driven by Korea, and Wave 2, which includes a bigger feature set and increased standardization, is being driven by Sprint.

“The industry is also on plan for integrated chip sets,” said Seymour. “Wave 1 certification is coming at the end of this year, and Wave 2 certification testing will be in Q1 2008, which should put us on track for handsets and IP peripherals by mid-2008.”

Tauschek’s sense is that the three companies will move trials to other jurisdictions even if they experience only moderate success in Hamilton. Mipps Inc.’s 3.5 GHz concessions cover large population areas, including the Highway 401 corridor. “There is no doubt that something will be worked out for roaming,” said Tauschek. “The only question is whether they approach Bell or Telus to work with CDMA, or Rogers with GSM.”

For Tauschek the initial deployment of mobile laptops with PCMCIA cards may be enough to alter the competitive landscape, so long as the service is good and the pricing competitive.

“Look at the Inukshuk initiative with Rogers and Bell. A 1.5-meg download speed at $50 a month might not do it, but reliable WiMAX at two to four megabits per second, and $25 or $30 a month, could be very appealing.”

Boutros also sees the price-performance ratio for WiMAX as providing a strong competitive advantage. “Security and quality of service is way beyond Wi-Fi, and the cost per megabit per second is cheaper with WiMAX than with any other technology,” he said. “As well, we made a conscious decision to go with approved 802.16e standard. We are not using 16d.”

The advantage with 16e is that Alcatel-Lucent can put in an interoperable network, and that users will be able to choose from a host of brands. “You can just go to any electronics store and buy your own device,” said Boutros. Part of the confusion over the viability of WiMAX stems from wildly differentiating claims as to its reach. It isn’t that these claims are necessarily untrue, but simply that WiMAX must be configured in different ways to deliver to different environments. This makes the design and testing requirements more stringent than for other technologies.

“It depends on a lot of things,” said Seymour. “In flat Alberta you can get a 15-kilometre radius at a fairly low cost. It depends on the power of the base station and line of site. The rule of thumb for dense urban areas is 500 meters. If you go out to a suburban area like Mississauga, Ont., you might get four to seven kilometers. In a rural area you can beamform off an antenna and maybe get 15 or even 20 kilometres.”

This is one reason why WiMAX has had appeal in semi-remote jurisdictions. Boutros, despite owning the spectrum for some very heavily populated areas, definitely sees the advantage of WiMAX in areas that are presently under-serviced. We will try to deploy wherever economically feasible,” he said, “and this might mean areas without high populations, and where DSL and cable aren’t available, and satellite is insufficient for uplinks. The other option, of course, is in populated areas where people want the freedom of wireless anywhere.”

The world is, in many ways, still waiting for WiMAX to prove itself. However, in Hamilton the proof of concept is done, including all non-line-of-sight and signal balancing. What’s left are the user trials to determine coverage, throughput and interface issues.

If it happens, and if it works, and if the handheld devices come through for VoIP enablement, it may be Industry Canada and the CRTC that end up having to play catch-up.

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