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AT&T launches first U.S. Mobile WiMAX network

AT&T said today it has been running an under-the-radar commercial Mobile WiMAX network in Pahrump, Nev., since this summer, using the technology to offer fixed broadband services in a market where it current does not offer DSL.

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Soma Networks won the contract for a multi-base-station rollout in the town of 45,000 people outside of Las Vegas. While AT&T is using the technology in a fixed deployment, it is using Soma gear based on the IEEE 802.16e specification, which Soma plans to submit to the WiMAX Forum for certification in the 2.3 GHz Wireless Communication Services (WCS) band. Several other service providers have deployed fixed WiMAX networks, based on the 802.16d standard and proprietary broadband wireless networks, while several more have announced plans to trial or deploy Mobile WiMAX networks. AT&T, however, is the first carrier to have a commercial network using Mobile WiMAX technology in the U.S.

Perhaps most famous for the legal brothels in its vicinity, Pahrump is experiencing the rapid growth of the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which is 60 miles to its southeast, and has nearly doubled its population in last six years. Yet AT&T has not built in a single DSLAM in the town. Instead, AT&T identified it, for both geographical and business reasons, as community to serve entirely with broadband wireless infrastructure, an AT&T spokesman said. It announced plans to launch a fixed wireless network in Pahrump last May but it did not identify which technology it would use or its vendor.

The choice of Soma’s equipment is somewhat a surprise since AT&T hasn’t been publicly supportive of Mobile WiMAX technologies in the past. AT&T recently pulled the plug on Mobile WiMAX trial its venture arm conducted in the Netherlands, and while it has launched several other WiMAX trials in the U.S., they’ve all used fixed iterations of the technology. Part of AT&T’s reluctance may have had something to do with the peculiarities of its WCS spectrum. Owned primarily by the RBOCs the spectrum is sparse and has unique channel sizes in the U.S. While the 2.3 GHz to 2.4 GHz bands are the some of the first frequencies the WiMAX Forum will certify equipment over, WCS will require its own certification profile and therefore more needs more support from the vendor community and the carriers that hold that spectrum before it can become fully certified equipment can be released.

But Soma Networks senior vice president of marketing and strategy Tom Flak said AT&T’s deployment of the technology is encouraging, giving the industry its first commercial example of a Mobile WiMAX deployment over WCS. Especially if AT&T decides to launch more networks using the technology, other vendors may pursue WCS product lines.

“AT&T is proving that the WCS band—despite limited spectrum—is viable for WiMAX deployments,” Flak said. “We’re in a commercial deployment of the technology, and what’s more, it’s been a successful one.”

The win is significant for Soma, which while it has had some success in selling its gear in developing markets, had not won a major deal with a large carrier. The AT&T deal, however, validates Soma’s strategy of targeting WiMAX at the “digital divide,” Flak said. Instead of trying to compete with the big vendors like Motorola and Samsung, it is positioning its 802.16e gear at fixed and nomadic deployments in countries with little developed broadband infrastructure or in underserved areas of developed countries. Consequently it has aggressively pursued equipment in diverse bands ranging from WCS to new 700 MHz frequencies coming up for auction, while the larger vendors have focused on the big global bands. As a small nimble provider, Flak said, Soma doesn’t have to build up a broad customer base to make a frequency worth pursuing. If there are licenses covering a few million pops, it can commercialize gear in that band, he said.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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