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Libera shifts from 28GHz to WiMAX

A new UK 'network in the sky'

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UK broadband wireless start-up Libera has made a major shift in strategy and will now focus its efforts on creating a national WiMAX network for businesses. This reverses the plan, announced in June, of building its network in licensed 28GHz spectrum.

Libera is adopting a similar approach to that of US WiMAX trailblazer TowerStream - targeting business users for rapid profitability; owning its own 'network in the sky' and so bypassing any leasing charges in the last few miles; moving to voice and consumer services when subscriber equipment becomes low cost.

CEO Robert Condon says that the huge cost differences between using standards-based gear in unlicensed bands, and buying equipment for 28GHz, was the deciding factor. With the 28GHz base stations priced around £90,000, compared to about £20,000 for first generation WiMAX gear, it would have cost about £9m to equip the whole of Greater London.

Although the original network - which had a pilot site in London's Canary Wharf business district - would have been based on Alvarion base stations, for WiMAX, Libera has turned to Aperto Networks, also used by TowerStream. The main deciding factor was Aperto's advanced intereference management techniques, which could prove vital as the unlicensed 5.8GHz space becomes more crowded. The first build-out will be in Bristol, a city with about 400,000 people, and the aim is to cover 75 per cent of UK businesses over the coming two years.

Like TowerStream, Libera will create its networks by acquiring roof rights on two or more tall buildings in each city. It has secured these rights in two tall Bristol towers, and is now negotiating for a site in west London that could cover a radius of eight kilometers. The plan is to go live in London in February and, depending on raising a round of funding, to expand to 50 sites in the course of 2005.

Libera will turn on the Bristol service before another start-up planning a national UK network, Telabria, which is using Redline equipment, can pip it to the post. Telabria starts trials in January, though its focus is more heavily on rural access than its rival's.

Libera's change of heart highlights the reasons why WiMAX will succeed in the early days, before mobility enables it to be truly disruptive. For the short term, it will offer cost economics that allow providers to undercut wireline options as well as promising high levels of service. This may become more problematic as 5.8GHz becomes crowded, but in its current virtually unused state, it provides a low risk option for ISPs and will certainly drive an early rush of innovative offerings in the US and Europe.

It is not clear what will happen to Libera's 28GHz licenses, which would have covered over 50 per cent of businesses, or whether it will still use that spectrum for backhauling its network in the sky. Though interest in higher frequencies is waning in Europe because of the promise of using 3.5GHz, which supports non-line of sight, there is still an important role for these bands in delivering very high data rates in point-to-point applications - for backhaul, some enterprise systems and high performance metro area networks.

One example is a metro area system for Manhattan, New York City, which will be built next year by GigaBeam as a fiber alternative, using the recently opened 'millimeter wave' spectrum at (71-76GHz and 81-86GHz). The GigaBeam system can transmit at up to 3Gbps and will use a tall building, Hub at 32 Sixth, as its main point of presence.

Other companies are developing very high speed technologies for 56GHz, also recently opened by the FCC for fast wireless networks. NewLans, which has submitted proposals to the IEEE for a future Gigabit Wi-Fi standard, is in the shorter term looking to develop proprietary, gigabit technologies for 56GHz.

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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