opinion


WiMAX heating up in Asia

Attending and chairing the WiMAX Forum Congress Asia recently in Singapore provided an opportunity to take the pulse of the WiMAX industry in Asia Pacific.

One of the most significant developments at the event was the momentum WiMAX is gaining in India, one of the top future markets for the technology, according to our WiMAX Broadband Convergence report. Four of the country’s major operators are deploying or close to deploying the technology, including Tata Communications, Reliance, BSNL and MTNL.

Tata Communications (previously VSNL) has already launched wireless broadband services using 802.16d-2004 Fixed WiMAX equipment running in the 3.3GHz band and sourced from WiMAX vendor Telsima. Tata is aiming to deploy at least 1,000 base stations by year-end to support enterprise broadband services in 110 cities and consumer services in at least 18 cities. Tata says it aims to have 200,000 consumer subscribers by 2009-10.

The operator has a shot at hitting the target given that India had a broadband penetration of just 1.5% of households at end-2007, according to Informa Telecoms & Media’s World Broadband Information Service. That represents just over 3 million subscribers in a country with a middle class population of near 50 million and total population of more than one billion.

Reliance Communications is also deploying WiMAX fixed services in 3.3GHz spectrum, although it has not yet detailed the extent of its rollout.

At the WiMAX Forum Congress Asia, BSNL chairman and managing director Kuldeep Goyal noted that the state-owned operator currently has 3.3GHz 802.16-2004 services in ten cities. He added that the group expects to get 20MHz of 2.5GHz spectrum this year, which it will use to deploy Mobile WiMAX services in 21 circles across the country. The operator expects to start deployment by end-2008 and expects 3 million subscribers by 2010.

State-owned MTNL is also understood to be evaluating deployment of Mobile WiMAX in the 2.5GHz band, although the plans of both BSNL and MTNL obviously hinge on the timely award of 2.5GHz spectrum, which has been delayed in the past.

Among other developments at the event, the WiMAX Forum announced the first Mobile WiMAX products to receive WiMAX Forum Certified approval. The products are built to the relatively niche 2.3GHz profile used in Korea, but the first Mobile WiMAX product certification is nevertheless an important milestone in the WiMAX industry. This is partly because 2.3GHz product certification will help clear the way for certification of more mainstream 2.5GHz and 3.5GHz products.

KT also announced that its WiBro service had more than 140,000 customers a year after full commercial launch in April 2007, and almost two years after the initial launch in mid-2006. Critics at the event noted the subscriber numbers were well below initial expectations and highlighted the challenges WiMAX will face in highly competitive broadband markets. WiMAX backers cited the recent growth in KT WiBro subscriber numbers as evidence that the service had turned a corner, and highlighted the operator’s goal of landing 410,000 subscribers by end-2008.

WiMAX may have less competition from other broadband systems in emerging markets, but as a new technology it still faces challenges. Rizwan Tiwana, chief technical officer of Wateen Telecom, said the operator now had Mobile WiMAX coverage in 22 cities in Pakistan using equipment from Motorola operating in the 3.5GHz band. However the deployment started in early 2007 and commercial launch took place in mid-December 2007, with one of the key challenges being delivering good in-building coverage. Nevertheless, the operator plans to continue improving indoor coverage and to expand services to at least another 70 cities by end-2008, in the process increasing its Mobile WiMAX network from 460 to 1500 base stations, Tiwana said.

As of mid-April the operator had 15,000 consumers on a broadband plus VoIP bundle, in addition to 1,400 business subscribers. “Our CPE costs are a problem-they’re currently too high to spark mass adoption,” Tiwana said, citing WiMAX CPE costs of $150-200 compared to DSL modem costs of $25. He rightly added that “the only way to drive down WiMAX CPE costs is faster adoption globally,” which will generate the economies of scale necessary to significantly reduce equipment costs.


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