Urban Wimax trail coming to New Zealand

Von Paul Brislen

New Zealand wireless network operator Broadcast Communications Ltd. (BCL) is to trial a WiMax network targeting urban centers. The move could see BCL abandon its stance of only servicing rural and remote New Zealand, and position it head-to-head with the country"s only other national network operator, Telecom New Zealand Ltd. (Telecom).

Telecom and BCL currently work together delivering rural broadband services to Fonterra"s dairy farmers and as part of the government"s regional broadband extension project, Probe.

WiMax networks are capable of delivering broadband at greater speeds than ADSL offerings -- such as Telecom"s Jetstream -- over managed wireless spectrum.

BCL managing director Geoff Lawson says WiMax will enable the operator to deliver wireless service into the cities because of lower costs for customer premises equipment (CPE) and greater capability in an urban environment.

"WiMax was really built for a metro environment whereas the equipment we use in our rural network is not," he says.

BCL"s eXtend network uses proprietary equipment from wireless equipment manufacturer Airspan, and BCL has been discussing Airspan"s plans for WiMax with the company. Airspan is one of the founding members of the WiMax forum which is currently defining the standard, also known as 802.16. Airspan"s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Grant Stepa, was in Auckland visiting BCL last week to discuss WiMax and its capabilities.

"WiMax is available in three profiles: two are licensed and one is unlicensed," he says.

BCL owns spectrum management rights in the 3.5 GHz spectrum which would give it a capacity of either 13M bps (bits per second) or 26M bps, depending on the configuration.

"That"s actual throughput, actual data rates, rather than the way Wi-Fi does it with all the overheads eating into the final capacity."

Stepa says the company is ready to launch both base stations and CPE devices as soon as the standard is ratified and has been chosen to deliver a WiMax metro network in central Tokyo.

"It"s built like a GSM network with cell sites and we"re going to deliver 600 of those in central Tokyo."

The certification process should be complete in June or July this year.

Because WiMax offers a managed interface, Stepa says BCL would be able to offer voice services as well as data, video conferencing and other forms of traffic that need good quality of service.

"It offers real time quality of service with low latency and we can deliver priority on flows, so a voice call could be configured to always take priority over data, for example."

Because the CPE devices are portable, Airspan is promoting the service as a portable broadband solution, similar to the approach taken by Auckland-based Woosh Wireless.

"Ultimately it will be built into the laptop. Intel has said its next version of Centrino chipset will be WiMax rather than Wi-Fi and that"s due out in the middle of next year."

For Lawson and BCL that"s great news -- it currently charges around NZ$1,000 (US$717) for CPE and has to send a technician to install the antenna on the customer"s building. Airspan"s device requires no software and simply plugs into the user"s PC or laptop. When the Intel chips are made available the cost is expected to fall to practically zero.

BCL is one of only a handful of companies with 3.5GHz licenses: TelstraClear, Vodafone and Wired Country all have rights in the space and the government is currently asking for "expressions of interest" from parties wanting to provide wireless service in rural and remote parts of New Zealand using the remaining licenses. Telecom currently doesn"t own any spectrum licences in the 3.5GHz space. Spokesman Phil Love says the company will be keeping a watching brief, as it does with any new technology.