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WiMax Was Doomed To Fail, Says UK Broadband

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

WiMax was doomed as a mobile technology, and LTE is now the 4G network of choice, says Nicholas James of UK Broadband

Late last month a rather noteworthy event took place in London, as UK Broadband switched on an LTE network in the London Borough of Southwark.

It was noteworthy because it was the first commercial 4G network deployment in the UK, despite a number of LTE trials by British mobile operators. LTE trials have been undertaken by the likes of 3UK, O2, Everything Everywhere and Vodafone, but UK Broadband has been the first to launch a commercial LTE network in the UK.

There is little doubt that the UK is lagging badly behind in the deployment of LTE networks, and this country will be four years behind the world’s first 4G deployments in Oslo and Stockholm and three years behind the first commercial service in the United States.

The WiMax distraction

LTE as a technology is also something of a late starter. The capability to deploy a wireless network capable of delivering significant speeds has actually been possible for a number of years now, thanks to a rival technology called WiMax.

UK Broadband and a company called Freedom4 (formerly Pipex Wireless) had the necessary spectrum to launch these wireless networks in the UK, but only Freedom4 opted to do so with a WiMax network in Milton Keynes and Stratford Upon Avon. These WiMax networks were up and running in real world situations years before LTE arrived on the scene.

So why has UK Broadband effectively sat on this valuable spectrum for so many years and not opted to follow rivals such as Freedom4 and deploy WiMax networks?

UK Broadband’s chief executive, Nicholas James explained to TechWeekEurope the reasons why his company did not to invest in building WiMax networks and instead opted to wait for the arrival of LTE.

“UK Broadband has owned this spectrum for a number of years now” admitted James. “But with the decision to unbundle the local loop (i.e. fixed-line broadband), we realised that there was no way wireless providers could compete against an unregulated home broadband market.”

“Our view was that we had to wait until a deployable mobile technology came along, so for a time UK Broadband became the 4G research centre for PCCW,” said James.

UK Broadband is a wholly owned subsidiary of PCCW Limited, the holding company of HKT, the Hong Kong telecommunications provider.

Why did LTE beat WiMax?

But why does James think that LTE has succeeded in becoming the premier 4G wireless technology around the world, despite the fact that significant amounts of money has already been spent building WiMax networks globally?

James pointed out that most WiMax backers, including Clearwire in the United States (which has already built WiMax networks in many US cities), have signalled their intent to move across to LTE.

James explained that it was never cost effective for WiMax networks to compete effectively against fixed-line broadband networks.

“WiMax was never a long-term solution,” said James. “If you want to do home broadband where there is little competition from fixed-line operators (i.e. BT), then WiMax is the perfect technology for that.”

“But if you are in a competitive environment with multiple operators, unbundled local loop etc, then WiMax becomes less cost effective in that environment,” he said. James then went on to explain that in his view, the only way to differentiate is to offer mobility. James pointed to the fact that Ofcom warns that mobile data to grow 25 times over next five years and will swallow 4G capacity by 2016.

“The future is mobile data if you own spectrum,” said James. His view is that you cannot use a wireless technology to complete against fixed-line.

Wireless does not equal mobile

So what did James think was the problem with WiMax?

“The problem with WiMax was the time it took to go mobile,” said James. He said that the WiMax IEEE 802.16e (fixed WiMax) standard has been around for years now, but the mobile option (16m) is much more recent. And operators recognised that mobile connectivity was the future, not a fixed wireless option, and hence opted for LTE.

“What happened was that LTE came along early enough so that all operators adopted it,” said James. “No one adopted 16m because there were no economies of scale. Indeed, all WiMax operators have signalled they will move to LTE.”

“WiMax is dead as a mobile technology but it is not dead as a fixed technology,” said James.

James explained that UK Broadband brought Freedom4’s spectrum, because it is adjacent to UKB’s spectrum. “We now have 124MHz of LTE, of which 40 is in band 42 and 84 in band 43,” said James. This gives UK Broadband a continuous block of spectrum.

“From day one we will be offering a traditional home broadband product,” explained James. “The home LTE unit is fast and high capacity, and units will be delivered to us in March and we will formally launch the service in May.”

“LTE allows us to do it at a much lower cost than say a WiMax network,” said James. “The home LTE device has built in Wi-Fi, and a computer can plug directly into it via an Ethernet connection. In the future, we will also offer some telephony as well, but not from day one.”

Mobile Wi-Fi

“And then, in September,” he continued, “we will offer our first mobile product which is a MiFi device or dongle (similar to the one sold by 3UK). Essentially this unit creates a mobile Wi-Fi network but backhauls on the 4G network.”

James confirmed that the device will also be able to roam onto 2.6GHz frequencies and roam as well onto 3G networks, as well as other operator networks.

James also confirmed that UK Broadband is bidding for BDUK funding, to help in the provision of superfast broadband into certain rural areas.

“We believe that 10 or 20 percent of the UK has to be wireless, and we can deliver 6 20MHz channels in any given area, offering 20Mbps down, 5 Mbps up,” said James. “We can deliver that consistently, and those speeds count as superfast speeds.”