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WiMAX goes Dutch

KPN has announced its new FTTH strategy for the Netherlands

Industry watchers will be monitoring the progress of Worldmax with keen interest. If this Mobile WiMAX operator can make inroads into the highly competitive and mature Dutch broadband market, it would force a rethink of the view-widely held among analysts-that the best chance for WiMAX success lies only in developing economies.

Jeanine Van der Vlist, Worldmax CEO, is confident that the business case is built on realistic assumptions. “We only need to have a 3-5 percent penetration of households to break even from an operational point of view,” she says.

A privately-held company, Worldmax counts Intel Capital and Greenfield Capital Partners among its investors, although the amount ploughed into the company has not been disclosed. The company has access to a hefty 80MHz chunk of spectrum in the 3.5GHz frequency band, courtesy of Enertel Holding (owned by Greenfield Capital partners), which bought the licence as far back as 2003.  There appears to have been prolonged deliberation among Worldmax management about how best to use the 3.5GHz spectrum. Although Worldmax announced in February 2007 it had selected Motorola to run a Mobile WiMAX pilot, the relationship didn’t develop into commercial rollout. Instead, Alcatel-Lucent was paraded a year later as Worldmax’s Mobile WiMAX vendor of choice. In June 2008 Worldmax started commercial operations in Amsterdam, a launch timed to coincide with the WiMAX Forum Global Congress event held in the Dutch capital.  The initial rollout focus is Amsterdam, where 65 Alcatel-Lucent 802.16e base stations provide coverage across 50 square kilometres. This gives a population reach of 360,000. “We are happy with the network performance and the level of indoor and outdoor coverage,” says Van der Vlist, adding that network capex to date is around €2m. “In fact,” she continues, “the network is performing slightly better than we had expected.”

Worldmax launched its Aerea 2.0 service in October 2008, upping its maximum downlink speed at the time from 1Mbps (Aerea 1.0) to 2Mbps. But Worldmax hasn’t been slow in adding new and faster products.  Shortly after Aerea 2.0 the operator released Aerea 5.0, which offers 5Mbps on the downlink and 256Kbps on the uplink. And, in March 2009, Worldmax unveiled Aerea 8.0, which gives subscribers an 8Mbps/800Kbps service. Worldmax is clearly taking the battle to the country’s three mobile operators, which offer HSPDA nationwide. Although HSDPA can give as much as 7.2Mbps on the move, the speed drops according to how busy the base station is.

“Our speeds are guaranteed, even at the edge of the cell,” asserts Van der Vlist. “It’s not a best effort service, which the traditional 3G operators offer. WiMAX is also a true internet technology, which means we can offer higher speeds and better performance at a much lower cost [than mobile operators]. That makes us more competitive.”

Van der Vlist says that as the Mobile WiMAX network is “built for really high capacity”, Worldmax can crank up end-user data speeds to between 10Mbps and 15Mps through the use of MIMO and other speed-boosting techniques. And as part of its promotional e_ orts for its WIMAX USB dongle, launched in October 2008, Worldmax went out of its way to flex its high-capacity network muscles by challenging customers to download as much as 10GB of data in one day. Although overtly a competition-the customer who could download the most data in one day won an Asus notebook-Worldmax was also emphasising its different market positioning from mobile operators by associating itself with ‘unlimited’ data usage.

Tariffs for the Worldmax service, branded ‘Aerea’, range from €14.95 per month for 512Kbps on the downlink and 128Kbps on the uplink (dubbed Aerea 0.5), through to €39.95 per month for 8Mbps/800Kbps (Aerea 8.0), which can be purchased on a post-paid or pre-paid basis. There are no compulsory long-term-contract obligations for any of the Aerea packages. And like Clearwire in the US, there are daily and weekly rates designed to make it more attractive for customers to use the service when it is convenient for them. The single day rate for Aerea 5.0(5Mbps/256Kbps) is €7, while one week is charged at €14.50. At the time of going to press, Worldmax had not yet announced its daily and weekly rates for Aerea 8.0.

Worldmax gives some financial incentive to persuade customers to sign up longer term. If an Aerea customer commits to a 12-month contract, the USB dongle comes free. Otherwise it retails for €89.95 if customers don’t make any commitment beyond one month. But while the Worldmax tariffs look more attractive and more flexible compared with those offered by mobile operators, the Netherlands- and Amsterdam in particular-offers another challenge to the Intel-backed operator: FTTH (fibre-to-the- home), which can offer as much as 100Mbps symmetrical data rates, along with FTTN (fibre-to-the-node) plus VDSL-which can typically offer up to 50Mbps on the downlink-is gaining traction.

A FTTH project backed by the City of Amsterdam (CityNet) is in the process of hooking up 40,000 households with fibre in one of the city’s districts. CityNet’s plan is to eventually connect all households with fibre in the Dutch capital, which translates into around 400,000 ‘last mile’ fibre connections. And in September 2008, KPN, the country’s fixed-line incumbent, announced it had signed a three-year deal with Alcatel-Lucent-Worldmax’s supplier of Mobile WiMAX kit no less-to roll out FTTN plus VDSL2 in the Netherlands’ major towns and cities. FTTH and FTTN developments of this sort add to an already well-developed broadband market in terms of ADSL and cable adoption.According to Informa Telecoms & Media, the Netherlands had a 76.7 percent broadband penetration of households by the end of 2007, which translates into 5.6 million broadband subscriptions. “FTTH will happen, as will high-speed ADSL and VDSL, because people will want to connect it to their TV screens,” acknowledges Van der Vlist. “But these connections are limited to the house. As soon as you go out of the house, where wifi is out of reach, you will still need access to mobile broadband. That’s where we see our offer really going-to fill that gap.”  Van der Vlist doesn’t rule out partnerships with FTTN and FTTN providers to offer a bundled package of Mobile WIMAX and a high-speed home service. This could either be with Worldmax acting as a retailer or providing wholesale capacity to other service providers. “Nothing is written in stone,” says the Worldmax CEO.

Testing the Amsterdam waters

Worldmax has ambitions to extend WiMAX coverage beyond Amsterdam, but will only do so once it has honed its marketing strategy. “We’re really testing out how the market is reacting,” says Van der Vlist. “The process will last until mid-2009 and then we’ll build out a nationwide network, which we expect to complete in the 2013-14 timeframe.”

Van der Vlist says Worldmax is attracting a lot of interest from “young techies” and students. More unexpectedly, she says, is the high level of interest among small businesses. The CEO would not be drawn on disclosing actual subscriber numbers, however, other than to say “it’s going according to plan”.

What isn’t part of the business plan are PC cards. Although one was initially available with the Aerea 0.5 and Aerea 1.0 service, the faster Aerea services don’t support it. “We discontinued the PC card because there aren’t a lot of notebooks out there that can support it,” says Van der Vlist. “It’s easier for us to distribute USB dongles [for our nomadic service].”

So far, the USB dongle choice is limited to one (and only available to order online). Although branded as Alcatel-Lucent, the dongle is manufactured by Quanta, an ODM based in Taiwan. Van der Vlist does not reveal the extent of subsidy on the end-user device, but does say she is looking forward to when WiMAX-embedded laptops become available due to the greater convenience it gives to the customer.

“We’re expecting the first WiMAX-embedded notebooks [at 3.5GHz] to arrive in the Dutch market in the second half of 2009,” says Van der Vlist. End-user device variety, with a range of price points, will be key to stimulating nascent WiMAX markets. And while Mobile WiMAX at 2.5GHz is getting a lot of attention from OEMs/ODMs of CPE and end-user devices-primarily because of Clearwire’s efforts in the US- 3.5GHz is arguably being left behind. Van der Vlist is diplomatic. “We’re happy with the devices we currently have, but we are less satisfied with the speed new devices are becoming available,” she says. “We would like to see more.” Although the Mobile WiMAX certification process at 3.5GHz has already started, Van der Vlist says IOT is more important than certification. “It gives us the certainty that the CPE and end-user devices will work well with the network. Certification is a nice to have, but I am pleased with the IOT work done by Alcatel-Lucent [with its Open CPE programme].”

As well as WiMAX-embedded notebooks, Van der Vlist expects PDAs and UMPCs to become available this year; Worldmax has also started to extend its device distribution channels from online to independent retail outlets as of the end of 2008. “I’m pleased with the device roadmap'” adds Van der Vlist.

Worldmax’s 3.5GHz licence did not originally permit true mobility services. However, a decision by the EC (European Commission), which came into effect in November 2008, allows all EU member states to offer mobile services at 3.5GHz. It’s a development that Van der Vlist welcomes but she doesn’t see mobility as immediately crucial for the Worldmax business case, which is currently focused on fixed and nomadic usage. “Mobility starts to become more important when WiMAX mobile telephony handsets become available and there is wider network coverage,” she says. “That will happen in a couple of years’ time.”

Selected mobile data packages in the Netherlands
Provider Name Monthly fee Contract Speed Usage limit End user device
KPN Instap €17.50 1 year 768Kbps 200MB €39.95
KPN Totaal plus €45.00 1 year 1.53Mbps Fair use free
Vodafone Nat.standaard Vast €19 1 year 768Kbps 400MB free
Vodafone Nat super fast €49.95 1 year 1.024Mbps 2.5GB free
T-Mobile Laptop economy €19.95 1 year 1.024Mbps 250MB €99.90
T-Mobile Laptop business €34.95 1 year 2.048Mps 1GB €99.90

Packages on offer as of 27th November 2008                                                          Source: Worldmax


One comment

  1. Esme Vos 30/04/2009 @ 4:38 pm

    You missed the most important criterion of Worldmax’s success: the number of subscribers. Why did you not ask that question? And how long they have been subscribers. Nothing in this article gives me any comfort that Worldmax will be around after 2 years. It is difficult to get their signal inside a building with just a dongle attached to your computer. So you need a modem. Then if you go outside Amsterdam, you can’t find their signal. So it’s just for inside Amsterdam while you are outside on the street?

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