Wireline operators flock to WiMAX

Major step forward

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The WiMAX Forum has made a major step towards its goal of winning over key carriers this year, signing up BT, France Telecom and Qwest as members. The three wireline giants - along with Reliance Telecom of India and XO Communications - join three months after AT&T blazed a trail by becoming a member of the body, which promotes the 802.16 standard and provides the interoperability testing program.

Although some mobile operators are taking a keen interest in WiMAX as a complement to 3G, the most obvious fit is for wired carriers that have no wireless arm, like BT and AT&T, or that want to increase their presence in boom markets such as residential last mile services and VoIP, in areas where it is not economic to invest in cable or ADSL. AT&T, BT and France Telecom are all carrying out trials with pre-standard WiMAX gear and others such as Qwest - to date the quietest of the US long distance carriers about broadband wireless - expected to follow suit this year.

The addition of these new members is a major boost for the WiMAX Forum, which said at the start of the year that it aimed for over 100 supporters in 2004 - it now has 98 - with particular emphasis on carriers. The Forum formed a Service Provider Working Group in January to address technical issues and encourage carriers to join, since their support will be the critical factor in the growth of the wireless technology.

It admitted that most of its work in 2003 had been focused on chips and equipment and that there was very little input from carriers. It says the new working group should make it easier for operators to influence the development of the WiMAX sys-tem profiles, a process from which they have complained of being excluded in the past, presumably one factor in their slowness to become actively involved.

Most importantly, the new group is also developing the business case for service providers to deploy 802.16; focusing on real world multimedia applications; and creating standard net-work management interfaces. The aim is to gain greater carrier input at an early stage in order to shorten the trial and review process and reduce time to market.

To improve carrier confidence, it is essential for WiMAX to work with all the major radio standards and their governing bodies. Action to prevent collision with other wireless technologies and to ensure that WiMAX can be rolled out consistently in different countries is becoming urgent as products approach the market.

This is the remit of the WiMAX Forum's Regulatory Taskforce, which also exists to lobby for allocation of spectrum for WiMAX applications on a country by country basis. One key task is to ensure interworking where WiMAX shares spectrum with other protocols, such as Wi-Fi at 5GHz and 3G in the MMDS spectrum (2.5-2.7GHz).

Also putting pressure on the operators is Intel, which is working with BT and UK Broadband in the UK, Iberbanda in Spain, MVS Net of Mexico, Brazil's Neotec and Reliance to set up WiMAX trials. The chipmaker, which has placed heavy emphasis on WiMAX in its growth strategy plan, takes a strong role itself in evangelising WiMAX to operators and governments worldwide.

In terms of real world trials, BT is one of the most advanced and is to roll out its first pre-WiMAX commercial trial in Northern Ireland this summer using equipment from Alvarion. BT said it would migrate the proprietary Alvarion gear to 802.16a/d and 802.16e as soon as they are fully available.

Over the water, France Telecom is also trialling WiMAX-ready wireless broadband technology from Alvarion in a remote area of the Pyrenees. The two companies will offer Alvarion's Broadband Wireless DSL solution in Loudenvielle to provide last mile access. This is a pilot for a larger roll-out as part of France's aim to bring broadband to 95 per cent of people by 2005. And AT&T has begun trials of WiMAX. At a recent conference, its chief technology officer Hossein Eslambolchi said that WiMAX would enable his company to lessen its dependence on incumbent local carriers and reduce its costs in providing broadband access.

AT&T's short term objective is to reduce the $9.5bn sum it pays out each year to regional operators for leasing lines and providing access for its customers. "I'm looking for access technologies to innovate around and to bypass the RBOCs [regional Bell operating companies]. 802.16 and 802.20 are weapons to go after them," he said.

© Copyright 2004 Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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