New adventures in Wimax

26 Mar 2008

Last week's Wimax World Asia in Bangkok will probably be remembered by many delegates as "the one where the CEO of Buzz Broadband totally trashed Wimax in front of everyone" - which indeed he did - but there was a little more to the show than that.

If you missed it, Buzz chief Garth Freeman, who was on a panel about how Wimax could help connect rural Australia, stood up and said exactly the opposite. A little over a year ago, Buzz deployed Wimax for service in Queensland's Hervey Bay. Freeman's verdict: it's rubbish. No line of sight past two kilometers, poor latency and weak indoor coverage, he said. And so Buzz scrapped Wimax completely and went with a combination of Wireless DOCSIS, Wi-Fi and TD-CDMA to get its customers connected.

Lively and funny as the presentation was - we journalists live for moments like that - it was a bit of a head-scratcher, as Freeman didn't make clear whether the fault lay in the Wimax standard overall, the specific products (reportedly supplied by AirSpan), the types of services offered or the service area's topology. Maurie Dobbin - managing director of TeleResources Engineering Australia, who also moderated the session - diplomatically commented that any operator deploying any technology "need to do due diligence on vendors' claims, talk to people without the vendor present and find out what their real-world experience is".

Anyway, apart from that, most of the speeches were more of what you'd expect at a Wimax show, but a few key themes managed to surface:

1. Emerging markets still seems to be the chief playground where Wimax will make its name, bridging the digital divide and all. Speakers from Tata Communications (India), PacketOne, REDtone (both of Malaysia) and Telkom (Indonesia) were on hand to share their experiences and plans for rolling out Wimax.

2. If you're going to roll out Wimax, have a voice service - or else. Sunil Kumar, marketing director for Beceem Communications, told me that low-ARPU markets in particular will need voice ARPUs as well as data to make money. Kevin Suitor, VP for marketing and business development for Redline Communications, put it even more strongly: "If you were a Wimax operator and you didn't embrace a double play of voice and data, odds are you don't exist now."

3. Mobile internet devices (MIDs) - which is to say, devices that bridge the form-factor and performance gaps between handsets and laptops - are going to be mega-awesome big. Well, maybe. But there does seem to be awareness that if you're going to sell wireless broadband as an extension or replacement of fixed-line broadband, you're going to need something better than a handset and more portable than a laptop. Chunghwa Telecom's "mTube" device is designed for just that, says senior VP Dr Minsky Luo.

Whatever MIDs end up looking like, I think Karl Weaver of Newport Technologies, has it right - neither the handset nor popular devices like PNDs are the end-all form factor for mobile broadband, and the devices we do see are likely to vary from market to market based on local needs and cultural expectations.

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