Wireless Magic

Wireless Magic

There is something slightly voodoo about all things wireless. You interrupt the Sun’s background radiation with a signal and BAM — Friday night football, in full colour, stereo sound and real-time commentary. Neither explanations from expert engineers nor the fact that it’s been around for half a century make it any less magical.

And if you are still affected by the wow factor associated with broadcast technology, just wait until you see what’s about to happen to broadband.

As the price for landline broadband plummets, wireless offerings have predominantly focused on the niche and nifty.

The offerings which already exist are providing hot spots, and line-of-sight technology, for those lucky enough to have time to grab a latte while they work, as well as licensed spectrum, for the road warriors whose productivity gains could pay for ubiquitous coverage, and satellite services for out-of-towners, and people with sizeable upload requirements.

Numerous Internet service providers around Australia are looking for opportunities to plug holes in existing line-based services, however the latest in wireless broadband technology may even enable them to tackle such offerings head-on.

Already an industry veteran Ross Chiswell, CEO of Adelaide-based wireless infrastructure provider Integrity Data Systems, claims the rollout of wireless broadband is awaking from a deep slumber induced by a lack of funds.

“We’ve been fairly dormant in infrastructure deployment because there hasn’t been the cash about. Even if these companies built the infrastructure they wouldn’t have got the return,” Chiswell said. “Now we are seeing a lot of people looking at wireless broadband at a couple of different levels.”

Chiswell said resellers needed to look carefully at the wireless broadband offerings provided by different carriers. The lack of investment in the sector had seen a lot of smaller players adopt a build-as-you-go policy of infrastructure deployment.

“You have smaller organisations that are self-funded, and are using unlicensed products to initially deploy infrastructure to get revenue so that in time they will then be able to deploy more wireless sophisticated products,” Chiswell said.

Without this business approach, he said, wireless broadband would still be largely non-existent in Australia. While there were certain parallels with the early days of the ISP industry, he said the cowboy factor of unscrupulous carriers in the wireless broadband space had been kept to a minimum. Nonetheless, he strongly advised resellers to inspect the infrastructure, and ask questions about traffic loads and management before signing up to any relationship.

Often using public spectrum, and LAN-based line-of-sight technologies, many of the smaller players have settled on an urban or commercial area, where they provide a viable alternative to heavily-spliced Telstra lines. While not truly ubiquitous in terms of coverage, this style of deployment does provide some interesting opportunities for resellers so long as the network traffic is well managed.

Director of the fiercely independent, and fiercely Telstra-free, Big Air, Jason Ashton, provides wireless broadband coverage of about 70sqm around Sydney’s central business district.

A licensed carrier, Big Air uses publicly available spectrum, and a traffic management tool developed in-house. While Ashton claims the bulk of their market lies in places where access to landline broadband is difficult, he does not shy away from competing head on with DSL services.

“We focus on delivering high-speed wireless broadband, we don’t do anything less than a megabit by a megabit,” Ashton said. “Uptime of the network is very high and we offer attractive service level agreements. While it can take literally days to fix a problem with the copper network, if there is a problem with our network resolution it takes, at most, a couple of hours for us to fix it.”

When it comes to resellers Ashton said Big Air’s opportunities lay wherever fast and reliable Internet access was crucial to business needs.

“We really want to work with smaller IT providers integrators, and resellers people that have an existing customer base and want to sell a real alternative, rather than just a me-too modem,” he said. “We are trying to appeal to people who want a more reliable service than ADSL, we are very competitive with ADSL pricing at the higher end and at the lower end we are not the cheapest provider but our services start at as low as $55 per month.”

Ashton encourages would-be resellers to consider opportunities in the high-end of the market where margins are more attractive. However, industry analysts, such as METAGroup’s Bjarne Munch also see the emergence of Big Air style offerings in different capital cities in terms of bundling opportunities for resellers.

“As a traditional reseller prop­osition, they might be able to customise the service on the local level and set up arrangements with a number of providers in different cities,” Munch said. “To connect wirelessly while moving interstate, executives need to have knowledge about how to log onto each provider. That is something the executives don’t want to be burdened with, they just want one portal.”

While Munch sees opportunities in the area he also warns resellers against overselling line-of-sight wireless broadband solutions, as they fail to provide true ubiquitous coverage which many companies are aiming for when they look for wireless broadband solutions.

“If you need a ubiquitous service throughout the capital cities then satellite is really the only service which provides that coverage at this stage,” Munch said. “However, the cost is prohibitive. The key advice to the reseller is to start by doing applications profiling, find out what different types of user requirements your customers have then match these to the wireless service.”

It is this lack of true ubiquity which has kept wireless broadband services competing fundamentally with landline DSL offerings. Carriers such as Western Australia’s EFTel are even using wireless broadband running over unlicensed spectrum to bring Internet services to towns such as Mount Gambier, to make up for the sketchy landline services in the region.

Less expensive than satellite, it is ideal for connections which, although remote, do not require that the user be totally mobile.

However, another wireless broadband option is about to hit the market.

The Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WIMAX) 802.16 standard is a wireless protocol for high-speed-data transmission over long distances, but is yet to be ratified by the IEEE. Thanks to proprietary technology developed by US-based company Navini, WIMAX is to be unleashed in 33 locations around the world in early June. In Sydney recently-listed and launched company, Unwired, has the rights to the Navini technology.

After dabbling in both satellite and line-of-sight broadband provision, Unwired CEO, David Spence, is convinced the new technology will prove to be the holy grail of wireless offerings. Not only will the service be ubiquitous, it should also challenge land-based DSL connections in terms of pricing, and is set to be sold through major IT retailers such as Harvey Norman.

“Unwired owns spectrum across Australia acquired through an auction in 1999-2000, and we were trying to develop line-of-sight fixed wireless access services but found that the business case was pretty difficult,” Spence said. “When we started looking for beyond 3G services, we come across Navini, did some trials with that company in the latter part of last year, then raised some funds to build a network which would cover 95 per cent of Sydney.

“Now we are about to provide high-speed wireless and data products directly into the home, on a non-line-of-sight basis at prices comparable to DSL.”

Like its line-of-sight cousins, the Navini technology enabled Unwired to construct a carrier-level wireless broadband network for minimal fixed asset costs when compared to landline expenditures.

“For a very low amount in telco terms, about $33 million in fixed asset costs, we are building a network that can provide, directly into the home, high-speed wireless at very competitive prices,” Spence said. “We will be the only other network provider that can provide this sort of coverage of Sydney, other than Telstra.”

Another selling point for the WIMAX technology, according to Spence, is its ease of use. The company has already brokered deals with major retailers precisely because it requires a minimum of support.

“You just click this wireless modem into the back of your PC or into your wireless modem if you wanted to do that, and up pops a Web page, you pick your speed and give in you credit card details, log off and on and there you are you have access,” Spence said.

It sounds too good to be true, and in some respects it is. Standardised wireless broadband technology is still a good two to three years away, according to METAGroup’s Munch, and like all wireless broadband technology traffic levels will have to be carefully monitored in order to maintain high levels of access.

However, both line-of-sight tech­nologies and the proprietary WIMAX solutions provide some important opportunities for resellers whose customers are looking to upgrade their broadband service, and those who have been forgotten by or are looking for ways around Australia’s telco behemoth, Telstra.

Like Big Air’s Ashton, Spence proudly boasts Unwired to be “Telstra-free”.

“I don’t have a Telstra account in this business not for our phone service not for the backhaul, not for anything,” Spence said.

Carriers dependant upon Telstra broadband, albeit rebranded, will no doubt be watching the market carefully, and looking for new opportunities in this emerging area. Those broadband providers which have been battling Telstra in the courts for years over its broadband pricing, might just have a whole new outlook.

As for Telstra itself, the company should be watching its back as these new wireless services threaten to undermine the millions of miles of copper cable it currently controls.

And all thanks to ripples in the Sun’s background radiation — it’s still magic if you ask me.

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