AT&T to deploy WiMAX in 2006

AT&T Wireless grows close to Aperto

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Many of America's former Baby Bells are now looking to integrate mobile and wireline operations and move to a broader, multi-network platform for the future, embracing VoIP, mobility and filling broadband gaps with wireless. SBC is unexpectedly proving itself the most aggressive of all with its hotspot strategy and now moves to dual-mode handsets with Cingular and WiMAX. With BellSouth, its partner in the Cingular venture, also holding MMDS spectrum, there is a wide range of options that could also include future subsidiary AT&T Wireless, whose CTO has joined the board of Aperto and is looking to WiMAX to lower backhaul costs.

AT&T may be considering its wireless future, but its former mobile arm, AT&T Wireless - soon to be part of Cingular Wireless - is also showing strong interest in WiMAX. Its chief technology officer, Rod Nelson, has joined the board of Aperto Networks, a privately held vendor with advanced capabilities in the higher layer, software technology for WiMAX networks.

This comes in the same week that telco SBC, co-parent of Cingular, announced the most aggressive convergence roadmap of any former Baby Bell, a picture into which AT&T Wireless' WiMAX moves could fit very neatly once the merger is finalized.

AT&T Wireless and Aperto

Nelson's role at AT&T Wireless is to define its future network architecture and directions and plan for next generation high speed IP services. His relationship with Aperto indicates a trend that should accelerate - for cellular operators, despite the potential conflict between WiMAX and their 3G investments, to recognize it as a way to increase broadband data revenues, to stave off new competitors such as Craig McCaw's Clearwire, and to lay the foundation stones for all-IP '4G'.

The initial interest, according to Aperto's CEO Reza Ahy, is in the potential of WiMAX to provide cost effective backhaul for 3G networks and Wi-Fi hotspots, improving the ROI on these deployments. However, if widely expected developments in spectrum, freeing up sub-2GHz frequencies for broadband wireless, take place in the US in the coming year, AT&T Wireless could also look at WiMAX as a complementary mobile delivery network to UTMS.

Currently, AT&T Wireless holds no spectrum suitable for the current WiMAX profiles and would have to deploy on unlicensed 5.8GHz. This would be viable for backhaul but for consumer applications, lower bands are preferable. The most relevant licensed band in the US is 2.5GHz MMDS, most of which is owned by Nextel, Clearwire and BellSouth. However, in the future AT&T Wireless may be able to deploy 802.16 in its cellular spectrum or, assuming its merger with Cingular is finalized, the combined cellco could tap into the MMDS holdings of Cingular's co-parent BellSouth.

Nelson said: "WiMax is complementary to cellular, and we see it having good application for backhaul for cellular base stations and Wi-Fi hotspots."

AT&T Wireless has been very focused in recent months on the densely populated urban centers, especially with the launch of its first W-CDMA 3G services. When it turned these on in San Diego and Dallas in September, it referred to them as 'metropolitan hotspots' - partly to make up for the fact that 3G is only, to date, available in a few cities, and for the operator's relative slowness into real Wi-Fi hotspots, but also indicating its eagerness to roll out premium services for these high demand zones. Of the national cellcos, AT&T Wireless has had the worst reputation for customer service in recent times, and has failed to emulate Verizon Wireless' and Nextel's shift towards high margin enterprise business.

A new focus on a high value, high bandwidth network, using multiple network types to leapfrog other rivals, would help put this right and make AT&T Wireless a more important part of the combined offering with Cingular.

SBC's audacious convergence plan

It will also be interesting to see how far Cingular's owners, wireline telcos SBC and BellSouth, decide to take the Sprint approach of tighter integration of mobile and wireline operations to provide a converged platform. Both parents have MMDS holdings and BellSouth is the most advanced US telco in its trials of pre-WiMAX mobile gear, mainly using Navini equipment.

This week, SBC's chief technology officer, Chris Rice, said the company plans to offer dual-mode cellular/WiFi handsets and services, with single billing and seamless hands-off, in tandem with Cingular Wireless by as early as next year. This effectively gives Cingular more spectrum by allowing users to switch over to VoIP Wi-Fi connections in the office or hotspot, leaving more room for cellular users. The combined service will be offered to businesses in 2005 and consumers in 2006 and complements SBC's aggressive recent move into hotspots through deals with Wayport, McDonald's and others, as well as its VoIP plans.

Unusually for the normally slow moving former Baby Bells, SBC is really blazing a trail for cellular-VoIP integration here, and it will be only a small step to incorporate WiMAX too.

SBC said recently that it plans to build a converged network costing $4bn to $6bn over the next five years to enable it to compete directly with cable providers and deliver voice over IP and high speed data services such as digital video and Microsoft's IPTV technology. The network will be based mainly on fiber 'to the kerb', with copper and broadband wireless, probably WiMAX, covering the last few hundred feet.

A boost for Aperto

Whatever the medium term strategies of the giants, attracting a director of the caliber and influence of Nelson is a good credibility boost for Aperto as it seeks to establish its credentials in a market where there is likely to be shake-out over the coming two years. As well as putting it in pole position to supply trial equipment for AT&T Wireless from next year, there is also the possibility that the cellco might seek to acquire its source of networking infrastructure, a pattern that McCaw has set with Clearwire's acquisition of gear maker NextNet.

Aperto's PacketWave range of broadband wireless equipment for the MMDS, 3.5GHz and 5.8GHz bands has been heavily targeted at enterprise providers but vice president of marketing Alan Menezes sees the WiMAX standard, with the low cost subscriber equipment and "comfort level for the service providers" that it brings, as the catalyst for moving into the consumer sector over the coming two to three years.

Aperto is focusing heavily on differentiating its products at the higher software layers so that they are not fighting at the levels where WiMAX will commoditize the gear. Many of its strengths will be highly attractive to a large provider like AT&T Wireless, including advanced quality of service features supporting multiple classes of service and a patented technology for establishing optimal links.

Menezes says Aperto's goal is to go public within the next year, though "if an offer came along we would have to consider it. We will become an increasingly attractive target as we add breadth to our product line." The company expects to be profitable in the second half of 2005, based on a customer base of about 150 in 50 countries, with almost 70 per cent coming from outside the US.

However, he is cautious about mobility, which he sees as being a few years from real viability. "Cell sizes change, the amount of bandwidth that can be delivered through walls, the physics of propagation in non-line of sight, many things are still up in the air," he commented.

Rod Nelson is not new to broadband wireless. Although not directly involved, he saw the demise of Project Angel, which AT&T Wireless ended in late 2001 after the bursting of the last BWA bubble in the US. Some of the intellectual assets of that project were acquired by SR Telecom and form the basis of some of its ground breaking pre-WiMAX development. Nelson said that such initiatives were ahead of their time in 2000 because of lack of standards, high costs and the need for a truck roll for each subscriber. Nelson was previously at McCaw Cellular, which was sold to AT&T.

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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