WiMAX looms as muni network option
(Fourth in a series)
Wireless access in general, and Wi-Fi technology in particular, has been very attractive to municipalities wanting to improve broadband communications for multiple reasons. One of the most obvious is the fact that laptops and PCs now come routinely equipped with Wi-Fi access, and the access network equipment is also widely available and reasonably priced.
But as more cities discover Wi-Fi's limitations, they are also looking at other wireless options, namely WiMAX, the more robust wireless technology that is just now coming to market. Grand Rapids, Mich., is one of the first cities to move in this direction, partnering with Clearwire, which holds wireless spectrum in various places around the country and has been rolling out broadband wireless using pre-WiMAX technology.
Karl Edwards, president of Excelsio Communications, was a consultant to Grand Rapids on the project, and says the choice is based on looking carefully at the business case and at what the city actually wanted from its network. This is a particularly crucial decision for smaller cities or less densely populated areas, where the cost of putting in a Wi-Fi infrastructure is higher.
“At the end of the day, it comes back to what is the business case,” he said. “I primarily work with cities in rural and suburban areas -- I’m not working with NFL cities. In those cities, the business case was affordable broadband access. The problem is, if you are targeting residential consumers, they are very price sensitive, but they expect it to work anywhere. They expect it to work indoors.”
Service providers are loath to build out a Wi-Fi infrastructure that can provide that kind of access, without a commitment from a city as an anchor tenant, Edwards said. As more cities decide they either don’t want or can’t afford to be an anchor tenant, more of the Wi-Fi network deals are likely to fall through, he said.
“That is why you are starting to see cities look at other options, like mobile WiMAX, because the capex per square mile is much lower, and you get a more robust service,” he said.
In Grand Rapids’ case, Clearwire can build a WiMAX network that covers all 45 square miles of the city with 10 to 15 towers, versus about 20 to 40 WiFi access points per square mile. And the network “will be able to support mobile public safety applications in heavily foliaged environments,” Edwards said.
Under the agreement, Clearwire is reimbursing Grand Rapids for $100,000 spent testing the WiMAX network and will also pay fees to lease city assets for the network deployment. In addition, it will discount its normal $30 to $40 monthly rates to a set number of low-income households.
The attraction of WiMAX grew considerably this summer when Clearwire, which to date has been offering broadband wireless in 31 markets on licensed spectrum, announced its intent to partner with Sprint, which has been testing WiMAX, in building a national WiMAX network. By working together, the two companies will reduce the capex that would be required to manage that buildout separately, while speeding the creation of a national WiMAX footprint. Having a national WiMAX network available makes local networks more appealing because customers can roam, Edwards said.
WiMAX supporters say the technology can offer the range of a cellular network with the broadband access speeds of a Wi-Fi network, at a lower cost than building out either of those.
To date, mobile WiMAX gear -- the 802.16e standard -- is not available, but it is expected to hit the market in 2008. What has been deployed thus far, is WiMAX 802.16d gear, which doesn’t support mobility, but can function in unlicensed bands, said Angela Singhal, director of municipal wireless solutions at Nortel, which supplied the equipment for the world’s largest Wi-Fi network -- Taipei, Taiwan’s WiFly, which uses 4000 access points and cost $31 million to build, according to published reports.
The choice between technologies can come down to the simple matter of access to spectrum, Singhal said. “The biggest question is, do you have licensed spectrum?” she said. “If you don’t, WiMAX E is off the table. Unless you can find someone who can be the anchor tenant that has access to spectrum. Universities have access to spectrum, for instance.”
Universities or other spectrum holders will sometimes pair up with regional operators and trade spectrum access for discounted service or revenue-sharing, she said.
“For operators or cities who don’t have access to licensed spectrum, they can deploy Wi-Fi and use WiMAX D for backhaul,” Singhal added. “We did a deployment in Alberta [Canada] which is not a dense deployment. Users are spread out and [the wireless traffic is] going very long distances. WiMAX D makes a lot more sense.”
In some rural scenarios, it may even make sense to use WiMAX D for access, she added. That requires special equipment at the customer site, which can drive up costs. But in-building Wi-Fi access often requires special equipment as well, as Nortel learned in Taipei, Singhal said.
“It also comes down to economics,” she said. “Wi-Fi is alive and well, and this is what is in everybody’s device. WiMAX is coming on, but before it becomes very popular, you need to make sure there are enough devices on the market so you can get the subscriber acquisition required to make your business case.”
Grand Rapids is Clearwire’s first municipal partner, and company officials were unavailable to comment for this article on their future plans for municipal network. The Seattle-based company, founded by cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, is considered well-funded, but it also is taking on partnerships with DBS players EchoStar and DirecTV as part of a triple-play offering that would let the company compete against incumbent telco and cable players in the markets where it holds licensed spectrum.
EarthLink, which is partnering with many municipalities in building Wi-Fi networks, has been studying WiMAX for some time now, said Don Berryman, president of EarthLink Municipal Networks, and believes the technology will be complementary.
“It would be a great backhaul because you can transmit a signal much further,” he said. But it’s at the very early stages. We do think it will be a very complimentary application where we can deliver a lot more bandwidth closer to the customer. If you can get a Wi-Fi signal, that’s more efficient, but if you are outside the Wi-Fi network, you can pick up a WiMAX signal. That becomes possible once dual cards are available.”
It would work in a method similar to the way iPhones work, Berryman said, in that they use a Wi-Fi connection for data when a Wi-Fi signal is available because it delivers data at broadband speeds that the cellular network doesn’t yet handle.
Berryman added that EarthLink “would more than likely partner with someone like Clearwire or Sprint” to deliver WiMAX over licensed spectrum.
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