WiMAX set to mushroom from Alberta farm town

Hanna, Alberta, has 2,996 people, 16 restaurants, 10 churches, seven motels, and six WiMAX towers.

This rural farming town about two hours northeast of Calgary, adrift on Canada’s ocean of ‘short grass country,’ is on the cutting edge of fixed broadband wireless deployment in North America.

At this week’s WiMAX World conference in Boston, multimillion-dollar chip vendors, equipment builders, carriers and network providers will be promising to do what a tiny start-up, Netago Wireless , has already begun in Hanna: deploying Nortel base stations and customer premises gear (called subscriber stations) with radios based on the IEEE 802.16d fixed WiMAX standard.

Netago’s plan and early experience suggests the future development of fixed WiMAX in much of North America: affordable, multi-gigabit data services in areas where alternative technologies such as fiber-optic networks and 3G wireless are lacking, inferior or costly.

The value is ‘access’

“‘Access’ is the value in WiMAX — the last-mile connections,” says Tara Howard, an analyst in the broadband access technologies group of market research firm Yankee Group. But activity in the United States for fixed WiMAX is much less than elsewhere in the world, she says. AT&T announced a WiMAX trial last year , for backhaul and disaster recovery applications, and that trial is still ongoing, Howard says.

Mobile WiMAX, based on the 802.16e standard but not due for deployment until late in 2007, will support roughly similar data rates, but at shorter ranges compared to 16d, to client devices in vehicles, analogous to the kind of mobility you get with cellular voice calls today. But the WiMAX Forum hasn’t released yet the mobile profiles used to bolster vendor interoperability. And the 16e standard is going through an extensive formal process to correct errors and inconsistencies.

Issues like security and service-level agreements may cause big enterprises to delay the WiMAX embrace, Howard says. “It might be good for certain remote workers, and smaller businesses may find cost advantages in using WiMAX services compared to expensive T-1 connections,” she says.

Netago, founded three years ago by its president Terry Duchcherer, has about 70 WiMAX customers, most of them residential but also including a few energy companies that are wringing oil and gas from beneath the region’s fields of wheat, barley and rye.

The WiMAX opportunity

Duchcherer worked for telecom companies since 1981. Then in 2002, he saw the start of the province-wide Alberta SuperNet , a high-capacity fiber backbone intended to link government agencies, schools and hospitals to the Internet. And he saw an opportunity. “The backbone doesn’t do the last mile [connection],” he says. “That’s left to private enterprise.” It was the opportunity to bring high-speed Internet access to rural homes and businesses by using broadband wireless.

Initially in 2005, Netago provided a data connection via proprietary radio gear as a stopgap until the IEEE standard was finalized and vendors began delivering WiMAX gear.

“One of the hugest reasons we were looking at WiMAX was because our government partner is easy to sell to when we can say, ‘We’re using a standards-based technology.’ They don’t have to worry about [being locked into] a single vendor,” Duchcherer says.

He also wanted a radio technology that made use of licensed spectrum, in this case the 3.5-GHz band, which is not available in the United States for commercial use. The WiMAX standard can use numerous different licensed and unlicensed bands.

“Moving from unlicensed proprietary equipment to licensed WiMAX removes all [potential] interference issues for us,” he says. Radio users, whether rival carriers or private enterprise, “just plain are not allowed to use our spectrum,” he says.

Netago set up the first three Nortel WiMAX towers in early 2006, and has just added three more. Eventually, says Duchcherer, Netago with Nortel, under a contract with the Alberta Special Areas Board, will blanket some 8,000 square miles with WiMAX data and eventually voice services.

Multi-gigabit and affordable

Customers today can select from three data plans, delivering uplink speeds of 1.5Mbps to 3Mbps, and downlink speeds of about 512Kbps. The plans are priced from US$35 to $150. Duchcherer says that’s “fairly comparable to DSL service.” And a huge improvement over the dial-up connections Hanna-area users were relying on.

Ranges vary, but with good line of sight to the base station, a subscriber radio can get the maximum data rate at up to 15 miles away.

Most customers today are using an outdoor subscriber station, about 12 inches square, mounted on the side or roof of a building. In the future, indoor units will be available, similar in concept to a DSL or cable modem today. “With WiMAX, it’s easier for subscribers to set up their own equipment compared to proprietary radios, which are far more complex to set up,” Duchcherer says.

Today, a Netago technician mounts the outdoor subscriber unit and powers it up. It starts scanning for the nearest base station, identifies itself, and a server in Netago’s network operations center then downloads the appropriate configuration data.

“With self-install home units [in the future], subscribers will be able to plug it in, fire it up, and then from our NOC, we can configure that radio and give them service in a matter of minutes. In either case, the NOC can remotely monitor, troubleshoot and manage the subscriber radio,” Duchcherer says.

Next: Nomadic computing

Duchcherer plans to market Netago’s WiMAX service to mobile workers, most of the booming oil patch. There are hundreds of such potential users, with laptops cabled to cell phones as modems, struggling with expensive and spotty CDMA 1X cellular data services. “It’s not that much faster than dial-up,” he says.

Nortel’s installation engineers have already, almost by accident, proved the viability of Netago’s WiMAX service for such nomadic users. Last January, not wanting to troubleshoot and configure the base stations outdoors in the bitter Alberta cold, the engineers tossed one of Nortel’s indoor WiMAX subscriber units onto the dashboard of their pickup. They used an Ethernet cable to connect a laptop and then drove all over with it, testing the bandwidth. With good line of sight to the base station, they held onto data rates of 2Mbps to 3Mbps up to 10 miles away, Duchcherer says.

While Sprint Nextel and Clearwire in the United States have announced plans to deploy 802.16e mobile WiMAX nets, at a cost of billions, Duchcherer doesn’t have similar plans. “The thing about 16e is the shorter range,” he says. “On handheld devices, this will drop to 3 to 4 kilometers. And 16e radios are likely to be considerably more costly [initially]. For our target businesses, that’s not on our radar screen.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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