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Road to Wi-Max - Key advantages and challenges

March 15, 2010
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With a population of more than a billion and a broadband subscriber base of 8.03 million, India is a huge potential market for broadband and needs rapid deployment of such services, which would, in turn, accelerate GDP growth. Also, with industries like banking, insurance and manufacturing expanding their reach across the country and their employees located in field offices in remote areas, the issue of connectivity is of prime importance. Against this backdrop of rising demand, Wi-Max is fast emerging as a key technology to address the concerns of last mile access and offer connectivity in remote areas.

The technology's penetration has been gradually increasing in the global markets as well due to the presence of an extensive ecosystem of device vendors, infrastructure manufacturers, chipset makers, system integrators, operators, service providers, application developers and other players. Operators like Clearwire and Yota have witnessed substantial growth in their Wi-Max operations over the past two years. Banking on the technology's ability to help service providers enhance their revenues in the face of rising competition, Wi-Max vendors such as Aperto Networks, Telsima, Airspan Technologies and Airvana have been expanding their presence.

The worldwide shift towards Wi-Max has taken place on account of the technology's large-scale benefits and its ability to provide a cost-effective alternative to service providers who don't have a 3G licence or the required infrastructure.

The advantages of Wi-Max over 3G include its ability to provide a higher throughput, lower costs and lower latency.Wi-Max offers a higher performance for data at speeds of over 1 Mbps downstream.Moreover, the lower cost of Wi-Max spectrum as compared to 3G is a key driver for service providers to offer wireless services with Wi-Max. Wi-Max technology is the solution for many types of high bandwidth applications that will enable service carriers to converge the all-IP-based network for triple-play services –­ data, voice and video.While the licensed Wi-Max spectrum has a higher price and is usually found in the 700 MHz, 2.3 GHz, 2.5 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands, it is free from interference. However, Wi-Max in the 700 MHz band poses some challenges, which include the high capacity requirement of its large cells, the large-sized antenna arrays and the small blocks of spectrum allocated to operators.

Moreover, large-size antenna arrays are also needed if multi-input, multi-output capacity enhancing techniques are used.Wi-Max, in this band, is mainly used for providing fixed services in suburban and rural areas. The exclusive control that a service provider gains with licensed bands facilitates a highly stable deployment and good service quality with mobility, particularly in dense urban environments.

Some of the other key advantages that have been driving its demand include WiMax's ability to provide communication up to 30 miles as compared to traditional wireless or wired technologies. This makes it a favourable choice for expansion in underserved areas.

Wi-Max also supports peak data speeds of around 20 Mbps with average user data rates of between 1 Mbps and 4 Mbps, thus providing an ideal platform for meeting the data transfer needs of enterprise customers. A promising next-generation wireless technology, it is capable of supporting high data rates along with a long transmission reach. Moreover, the technology provides telecom carriers with the flexibility to choose vendors and allows interoperability of equipment.


However, to be able to compete with alternatives such as wired technologies (ADSL and optic fibre networks) and wireless technologies (3G and long tem evolution [LTE]), Wi-Max needs to offer significant advantages to justify its initial deployment and operational costs. Wi-Max supporters have to contend with issues such as licensing, cost effectiveness and insufficient maturity vis-à-vis other technologies.Moreover, Wi-Max deployment is still at the planning stages and it may take threefive years for reasonable coverage in densely populated regions.

The technology also has a few hurdles to cross in terms of spectrum. Wi-Max spectrum has two categories –­ unlicensed and licensed. In most countries, the unlicensed spectrum is in the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands, where the entry barrier is low since it is unlicensed. While the unlicensed bands offer operators with insufficient access to licensed spectrum an opportunity to benefit from the features and price levels of Wi-Max, they have disadvantages such as interference, increased competition and limited power.

Wi-Max technology also needs to justify the high cost of equipment like base transceiver stations and customer premises equipment, as compared to competitive technologies, in spite of being more cost effective than 3G or high speed downlink packet access.

The emergence of standards, lack of clear specifications for interoperator roaming, and inability to interoperate with GSM and CDMA networks through standards-based interfaces are some other issues that need to be addressed. As a relatively new technology, mobile Wi-Max also needs to reduce size and power consumption to meet customer expectations for mobile devices.

Though LTE technology is lagging behind Wi-Max at present, it is fast catching up on account of the growing importance of mobile broadband in the global telecom markets. Moreover, with 80 per cent of the operators offering GSM mobile services, they are more likely to upgrade their existing technologies to LTE vis-à-vis Wi-Max. Wi-Max has mainly been the technology of choice for new market entrants –­ tier 2 and tier 3 operators. Since its operators have the ability to capture high-end markets and establish relationships with end-users, LTE has an edge in this segment too. If Wi-Max deployment rates do not speed up, LTE will become the dominant 4G data network by 2015. It will have the footprint, services, carrier and vendor support, thus severely limiting growth opportunities for Wi-Max.

However, eventually, the quality of service and the need for innovation will provide the business case for Wi-Max. With the technology being an enabler of broadband wireless access, service providers will need to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. Deploying mobile WiMax could well be a key differentiator.

Challenges in India

The delay in the auctions of broadband and wireless access spectrum has been a key bottleneck in the uptake of Wi-Max in the country. While the technology is offered in the 2.5 GHz-2.7 GHz band globally, in India, spectrum in this band is held by the Ministry of Defence, which is unwilling to release it and has reserved it for satellitebased mobile and broadcast applications.

Currently, the low frequency 2.3 GHz2.4 GHz and the 5.8 GHz bands, which are only good for trials and are not suitable for city-wide and commercial deployment, are available for allocation to service providers.

Further, the cost of deploying the technology is considerably higher when the service is offered at higher frequencies because the line-of-sight requirements necessitate the installation of additional antennas to cover the same service area.

For these reasons, key Wi-Max players including Tata Communications and Sify Technologies have asked the government to release higher band frequencies, but government officials have been unable to determine the quantity or the price at which to do so. While the government has allocated spectrum in the globally preferred frequency of 2.5 GHz to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, it still has a long way to go in terms of formulating a standard policy on this issue.

The challenges facing the large-scale deployment of Wi-Max can be overcome through a combined effort on the part of the government and the stakeholders. If these issues are addressed, Wi-Max will be the most successful technology in areas with little or no penetration. Wi-Max can be deployed in three significant ways –­ for incumbent mobile wireless providers as a high speed data overlay for cellular networks; for fixed wireless infrastructure providers as a standards-based interoperable network in underserved areas; and for competitive local exchange carrier and wireless internet service providers as a central office bypass to avoid using the existing wired infrastructure.

All in all, Wi-Max represents a winwin proposition, benefiting both network operators and subscribers. It's still early days, but the success of Wi-Max is assured because of the support the technology is garnering as well as the widespread and active cooperation across industries.

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