Internet junkies are shedding their umbilical cables and roaming the streets. The nation is going wireless, heralding a revolution more profound than the birth of the mobile phone. Paul D. Ryan takes a stroll through this brave new wireless world and considers the potential winners and losers, and how on earth so many corporate heavyweights failed to spot this approaching freight train.
It’s tempting to think of radio as a quaint technology. Perhaps, if you’re sufficiently long in the tooth, you will hear the word ‘wireless’ and think of clunky machines dressed up as furniture, piping reports from the war or crackling ‘big band’ crooners.
Newsflash. Radio’s day is just arriving. The future of personal communications is mobility and, after a number of false dawns, a series of technologies are emerging to deliver truly wireless broadband to the mass market at a modest cost.
We’ve heard about the emerging wireless revolution for a number of years now. Understandably, most Australians are waiting for one dominant technology to break away from the pack and establish itself as the standard.
So far, no wireless technology/system has grown much beyond niche market adoption. If you ever threw your lot in with LMDS, MMDS, WAP, GPRS, WiFi or 3G, you’d be forgiven for being somewhat jaded.
Over the past year, several new and intriguing wireless broadband providers have emerged and they are staging a plausible challenge to the telecommunications status quo.
Telstra has not pushed for wireless broadband uptake, largely because it controls the ‘last mile’ of copper/cable fixed line infrastructure that all Australians currently depend on – whether through Telstra directly or a rented line for telephone, ADSL or cable broadband internet.
But if you can by-pass Telstra’s fixed infrastructure by delivering data across the sky to homes and businesses through radio spectrum, the playing field begins to level out.
Bursting from the pack
One such company is Personal Broadband Australia (PBA), whose iBurst technology is available in Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast, with rollouts in Brisbane and Canberra to follow this year. Kanwar Saluja, PBA’s GM Channel Partnerships, believes it is an exciting time to be involved with wireless.
“We’re in the midst of a revolution in terms of how wireless broadband will improve people’s lives,” says Saluja. “It runs very much parallel to the way the mobile phone improved productivity. The ability to access information – your data, your colleagues, your friends, your family – from wherever you are at any time represents this new revolution.”
Though iBurst is a proprietary air interface, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is considering the technology for 802.20 designation. The old WiFi 802.11 standards (providing localised wireless hotspots of between 100-300m) are being superseded by a number of different standards and technologies. Entire metropolitan areas are being turned into hotspots by networks that transmit broadband internet from base stations with overlapping coverage (similar to mobile phone networks), each with a range in the kilometres.
According to Saluja, “The technology that can have the most networks deployed worldwide in an economical fashion adopted by a number of operators will win this race. It’s not necessarily about the best technology. It’s not about the technology that has the most hype and advertising. It’s about technology that is affordable to customers, delivers spectral efficiency and makes money for operators.”
Saluja describes WiFi technology as a cordless phone for your laptop, and says iBurst is more like a mobile phone for your laptop. Users insert a card into their laptops, giving them genuine wireless broadband wherever they roam within the service area. PBA wholesales its iBurst service to other providers (such as Ozemail) for retail distribution to end customers. iBurst currently offers 1Mbps download speed with 2Mbps available next year and 9Mbps in four years.
Unwired received extensive publicity when it acquired the 3.4-3.6GHz frequency spectrum licence in 2000 at an auction in which the federal government precluded Telstra from bidding.
Unwired uses Navini technology and is on the road to WiMAX (802.16), touted as the next big thing in wireless technology. WiMAX is expected to take off in the next 12-18 months, when interoperability testing and the ratification process are completed.
Currently, 802.11 technology (WiFi) covers around 150 metres. But WiMAX’s 802.16 technology provides a range of up to 50km, and 4-5km without the need for a direct line of sight to the wireless base station. It is also expected to offer data transfer rates of up to 70mb/sec.
In backing WiMAX, Unwired has the support of the WiMAX Forum, an international body with big name members, such as Intel, Nokia and Fujitsu, who are committed to promoting WiMAX as the international wireless standard for the future. The Forum was formed to ensure the rollout of WiMAX was organised and ratified from the outset, unlike the ad hoc rollout of WiFi that so inhibited that technology’s uptake and market penetration.
Unwired CEO, David Spence, believes the world is moving inexorably toward wireless technology, where data is replacing voice as the main driver of revenue.
“We believe that by third quarter 2005, 802.16e will be adopted as the WiMAX standard. And by mid-2006, Intel and others will release their first chip technologies with 802.16e built into them,” says Spence.
“Countries like India, China and others that are behind in the deployment of cable and associated infrastructure will simply leapfrog fixed line rollouts and adopt wireless technology directly,” predicts Spence. “We have a decent amount of spectrum. Navini technology is cheap to deploy and therefore relatively inexpensive for customers. This is definitely where things are headed.
Unwired now claims to cover 90 percent of Sydney’s population. Announcements on expansion to other Australian cities are imminent.
BigAir is not quite in the heavyweight class of Unwired or PBA. Nor can it offer the same level of mobility as its two main wireless competitors. But is does have one distinct advantage: high bandwidth.
BigAir owns its own network end-to-end. It transmits from base stations to small transmitters on the roofs of tall buildings. The tenants are then delivered Ethernet broadband at up to 10mb/sec.
BigAir’s joint managing director and co-founder, Jason Ashton, says people are sick of pseudo-broadband ADSL and that the carriers won’t be able to dampen demand for authentic broadband much longer. “A 256kbs/sec connection just doesn’t cut it anymore. Businesses want video conferencing. People want multimedia. Our goal is to deliver a genuine broadband service that empowers users.”
Ashton says that once WiMAX is standardised, it will lay beautifully over BigAir’s existing infrastructure, delivering the mobility that is now lacking. BigAir recently formed an operational alliance with SkyNetGlobal, and Ashton believes that rollouts in Melbourne and the Gold Coast are achievable within 18 months.
BigAir is looking to capitalise on the public’s appetite for ultra-fast high bandwidth connections. “Our model works very well in high density environments containing lots of commercial multi-tenant buildings,” says Ashton. “We have companies that push out 5Gb of data per day. You just can’t do that over an ADSL link, and it will cost you business.”
“The speeds are only going to get better,” he says. I’d like to think that we’ll be offering 10mb/s to our residential customers and 100mb/sec to a lot of our business customers within a year.”
VoIP: heard it on the grape vine
As if the emergence of this new breed of independent wireless providers was not alarming enough for the big telco incumbents, these new technologies have the capacity to deliver online telephony services that could make existing infrastructure (including Telstra’s ‘last mile’) thoroughly dispensable.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has been around for some time, but its evolution has been frustrated by lack of bandwidth and poor audio quality. The wireless broadband revolution brings with it the capacity to deliver a high volume of voice and data packets, making telephony a viable and cost-effective option.
An obvious target group for wireless broadband is people who don’t have access to ADSL or cable services. With the incorporation of a telephony service, customers are able to shed their landline along with its expensive monthly rental fee. Unwired is leading the way, but the other wireless providers are also incorporating VoIP as part of their rollouts.
The sleeping giant
So where does this leave our telco heavyweights – Telstra, Optus and Primus Telecom? It might be tempting for the likes of Saluja, Spence, Ashton and others driving Australia’s wireless revolution to allow themselves the occasional daydream about carving up the telco pie between them. But companies with huge profit margins and corporate muscle don’t simply disappear off the map. Not overnight, anyway. And not without one hell of a stoush.
It seems Telstra is biding it’s time before deciding on how best to address this rather unpleasant conundrum. But there will surely come a time when, having gathered its considerable heft, it will pounce, and everyone will hold their breath.
But when? And how?
Telstra chose not to provide comment for this article. However, someone more than happy to share his insights is telecommunications analyst, Paul Budde. And he doesn’t mince his words.
“Telstra has shown itself to be slow to move into serious network upgrades. They are totally mesmerised by the financial market and they don’t have the guts to manage their company independently, which makes it very difficult for them to make serious new investments.”
Budde explains that Telstra’s strategy thus far has been to limit the business opportunities for new wireless operators, by lowering the broadband entry threshold and introducing ADSL. In April this year, Telstra commenced a $100 million upgrade of its Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) mobile network, introducing a high-speed data technology called Evolution Data Optimised (EVDO).
Budde runs his own advisory service, Paul Budde Communication. He has built a considerable reputation for outlining the shortfalls of Telstra’s wireless broadband strategy. But he is quick to offer up a word of advice. “Never, ever underestimate Telstra!”
Telstra is trialling Flarion – an 802.20 standard service and rival of iBurst – for some corporate businesses. But it is clear that the carrier is waiting for the mainstream adoption of WiMAX before it makes a strategic commitment to wireless broadband.
According to PBA’s Kanwar Saluja, the large carriers are now faced with difficult options. “Building their own wireless broadband networks might take too long. Do they sit back and watch PBA and Unwired grab all of these customers who want wireless broadband or do they proactively embrace an existing offering, even if simply to hang on to those customers? Do they believe they’ll have to pay a premium to acquire these customers later?”
Time will reveal all.
The combination of technology and competition equals options for consumers. Wireless is the natural evolution of the information revolution that continues to empower individuals. Keeping pace with the rest of the world will be vital in maintaining Australia’s prosperity and purpose.
Whether the incumbents will take the plunge or continue to demur on wireless, the nation will continue to benefit from the growth of any plucky new players who are prepared to back the future.
The wireless shire (case study)
Redland Shire in Southern Queensland is an unlikely location for the largest single WiFi network in the world. The shire recently became one big hotspot, enabling what is believed to be the world’s first mobile-wireless business incubation model, the Redland Business Accelerator (RBA).
The RBA is a wireless technology-enabled hub delivering business incubation services to more than 8,000 small and medium-sized businesses across the shire. It was developed by joint venture partners Redland Shire Council, Creatop and Civic Solutions, in response to commercial demand for broadband access. Most of the shire, which encompasses the isolated areas of North Stradbroke Island and the Southern Moreton Bay Islands, falls outside the range of ADSL service.
The RBA delivers online business incubation services to subscribers, who pay a fee based on the business services required rather than broadband usage. The services offered include mentoring and technical advice, reception services, and tangential business services such as human resources and payroll.
Intel is providing support to the project in the form of technology, engineers and branding.
Redland Shire’s Mayor Don Seccombe is understandably excited about the RBA. “We recognised the potential of this solution early and have worked with Government and industry to form a commercial entity to market and export the RBA solution throughout Australia and to governments and Chambers of Commerce throughout Asia Pacific. Through this model we will achieve dual goals of developing Australian SMEs and generating export revenue.”
Wireless from space
Radio’s power has never more evident than in space. When the 30 year-old Pioneer 10 space probe finally hurtled out of contact from Earth in early March 2003, it was almost eight billion miles away. Its last signal took just 11 hours to reach us, using a transmitter only 10 times more powerful than a mobile phone.
What’s out there
WiFi (Wireless Fidelity)
- Enables localised hotspots of around 100 metres
- Popular in cafes and airports.
- Limited by short distance range, shared bandwidth and reliance on fixed infrastructure.
802.20 (sometimes called Mobile Fi)
* Range of up to 14km from base station
* Aims for operation in licensed bands below 3.5GHz.
* plans to deliver over 1mb/sec to mobile users, even when they are travelling at speeds up to 250 kilometres per hour (ideal dor deployment on trains).
WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access)
- Between 2-6GHz
- Originally conceived as a fixed wireless network
- Longer range of up to 50km from base station.
- Doesn’t require line of sight to user
- Organised through WiMAX Forum.
- Intel investing heavily in WiMAXe (mobile) chip capability.
The technology that can have the most networks deployed worldwide in an economical fashion adopted by a number of operators will win this race. (Kanwar Saluja – PBA)
The wireless broadband revolution brings with it the capacity to deliver a high volume of voice and data packets, making telephony a viable and cost-effective option.
Mobile phones pioneered the first modern wireless revolution, and they remain the pervasive vanguard of individual communications. Companies like Motorola and Nokia continue to push the envelope as technology evolves to deliver more power in ever-smaller packages.
Convergence is all the rage these days. New models, like the Motorola MPx 200, combine the best features of a wireless office with the compact mobility of cellular technology. The MPx 200 boasts Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity, a QWERTY keyboard, integrated email, windows compatibility, a camera, MP3 and large landscape/portrait colour display.
It is hard to see mobile phones loosing relevance. The all-purpose mobile communications unit of the future is likely to resemble this latest wave of convergence models – powerful, adaptable and, best of all, small.