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10 | June 2008
Unlicensed to make a killing?
The WiMAX business case in unlicensed frequency bands shouldn’t be
overlooked. By Ken Wieland
t seems counter-intuitive. customers. Some larger customers, such spectrum). Th ese bands are 5.8GHz,
Deploy a wireless network as GE Money, Bovis, Swisscom, Dennis 5.4GHz, 5.1GHz, 4.9GHz and, most re-
in a frequency band where Publishing and Faber & Faber, have also cently, 3.65GHz.
there is little or no regulation— signed up to Urban WiMAX. It indicates But it is in the 5GHz band (ranging
meaning that other operators that Urban WiMAX, like TowerStream, from 5.15GHz to 5.925GHz) that Sky
can use that same chunk of is delivering on QoS. Light Research identifi es as enjoying the
spectrum without having to One reason why WiMAX can cope most unlicensed wireless activity in re-
check on any interference better with interference in licence- cent years. According to the research fi rm,
implications—and then off er exempt bands compared with propri- 5GHz accounted for around 75 percent of
Ken Wieland
service level agreements to de- etary broadband wireless access systems all unlicensed wireless broadband ship-
manding business customers. is because its uses OFDM (orthogonal ments in 2007. It is less congested than
What may seem even more against frequency-division multiplexing), which 2.4GHz and has a stronger global pres-
the grain of common sense is that those splits data traffic into multiple sub- ence than 900Hz, says Sky Light Research,
business customers—rather than having carriers. This makes it less likely for the as well as being available in most regions
to wave angrily the SLAs in front of their message to be adversely affected by other in the world.
service providers’ noses aft er being badly traffic being sent in the same part of the However, following the FCC’s decision
let down—appear generally satisfi ed with spectrum. last year to allocate 3.65GHz for wire-
their service. Unlicensed frequency bands have other less broadband, a frequency band that is
US-based TowerStream, which off ers advantages. Th ey don’t require any heft y lightly regulated in the US—a nominal
T1/DSL replacement services to business upfront investment on spectrum, which registration fee is all that is required—a
customers using WiMAX in the unli- lowers the barrier to entry for smaller play- growing number of WiMAX vendors
censed 5.8GHz frequency band, reported ers. It can also provide a quicker route to have had their WiMAX kit FCC-certifi ed
an impressively low average monthly market if the regulator is dragging its heels at this frequency. Th ese include Redline,
customer churn rate of 1.35 percent dur- on WiMAX licence awards. Alvarion, Aperto and Airspan (all of which
ing 1Q 2008. Off ering downlink speeds And, according to suppliers, you don’t off er WiMAX equipment at 5GHz as well).
ranging between 512Kbps to 1Gbps, need much unlicensed spectrum on which Towerstream has already expressed interest
TowerStream says it can guarantee 99.99 to build an attractive business case. “Typi- in using 802.16e at 3.65GHz, which, if suc-
percent reliability. cally the operator customers we work with cessful, would open up another unlicensed
Urban WiMAX, which has rolled out a are happy if they can have up to 7MHz per opportunity for suppliers.
WiMAX network across London at 5.8GHz channel, but sometimes as little as 3MHz Yet there is no Tier One vendor vying
and 5.4GHz (another unlicensed frequency channel will suffi ce [if there is minimal strongly for WiMAX market share in
band), off ers a 99.5 percent availability interference],” says Elvis Tucker, direc- unlicensed frequency bands. “Th e volumes
SLA. Its service portfolio includes sym- tor of solutions and alliances at Aperto aren’t there to make this attractive for us
metrical data products ranging from Networks. “At the top end [around 7MHz] and I’m sceptical that it’s possible to off er
2Mbps to 10Mbps (in 2Mbps increments) you can provide operators’ customers meaningful SLAs,” says a spokesperson for
and is primarily targeting SME customers between 8Mbps and 10Mbps. And, by pri- a Tier One supplier.
(10-250 employees). oritising traffi c of particular customers, as And sceptics will further point out that
While SMEs, arguably, are less likely well as by prioritising the diff erent types of all the unlicensed frequency bands, only
than larger enterprises to push for a of traffi c used by individual business 802.16d at 5.8GHz has a profi le developed
stringent SLA—particularly in the case customers, operators can off er SLAs on by the WiMAX Forum. Outside of that
of Urban WiMAX, which typically mission-critical applications and charge frequency there is little chance of operators
charges its VoIP and symmetrical data premium prices.” being able to take advantage of vendor
products 30 percent cheaper than com- Aperto, which is TowerStream’s main interoperability.
parable products from its rivals—price supplier, provides support on its fi xed Th e onus is on suppliers to convince
alone cannot explain why the unlicensed WiMAX portfolio for a number of licence- operators that their WiMAX kit in unli-
spectrum operator has accrued what exempt and ‘regulatory light’ frequency censed spectrum, as it is eff ectively propri-
it claims to be several hundred SME bands (in addition to supporting licensed etary, does not derail the business case.
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