WiMax at sea, the journey begins

Singapore's maritime WiMax network up and running.

Ships that call on Singapore can now use WiMax instead of satellite to connect to the Internet.

Already 70 percent complete, Singapore's maritime WiMax network will eventually extend 15 kilometers offshore, covering its southern coastline and port -- one of the world's busiest with 140,000 ship calls every year. The government-led project, called WisePort, is run by local operator QMax Communications and uses the same version of WiMax found in South Korea, called WiBro, that uses the 2.3GHz spectrum band.

As part of the Singapore launch of Intel's Centrino 2 laptop platform, the chip maker chartered a boat -- actually a 56-foot pleasure cruiser called Sardinia -- to take out local technology reporters, analysts and a few bloggers, giving them a chance to try out the WisePort network. You couldn't ask for a better day to be out on the water, with a bright blue sky and a gentle breeze.

A few of the reporters even gave the WiMax network a shot, sitting down to use one of several Centrino 2-based laptops set up by Intel on the boat's flybridge for that purpose.

The WisePort demonstration didn't offer a chance to try Intel's WiMax chipset, which will be available with a limited number of Centrino 2 laptops sold in the U.S. later this year. Called Echo Peak, that chipset only supports the 2.5GHz version of WiMax and not the 2.3GHz flavor that WisePort uses. As a result, each of the Centrino 2 laptops was equipped with a Flyvo WiMax dongle.

I managed to corner a Toshiba laptop with one of these dongles and fired up Internet Explorer, thinking I'd first try watching a video or two. But the laptop, apparently fresh out of the box, didn't yet have Flash installed. So instead of watching a video, my first test of the network was to download and install the Flash plug-in. That was smooth enough, even if I wasn't blown away with the download speed. The short wait gave me a few minutes to enjoy the view as the Sardinia made its way across the approaches to Singapore's Keppel Harbor, headed toward the eastern anchorages, where dozens of ships lay at anchor.

Once I had Flash installed, I was able to watch several videos and visited several different Web sites, which all loaded quickly. Great, I thought, that's nothing special; it's just like any other decent Internet connection. And that's the whole point.

The reason Intel is head over heels for WiMax is the ability for operators to build high-speed, wireless data networks that cover a large area. Eventually, access to an inexpensive, high-speed Internet connection from virtually anywhere is something that will be taken for granted, or so the PowerPoint decks prepared by Intel's marketing department would have us believe.

I'm skeptical about the low-cost part of that vision, at least for the foreseeable future. Even if WiMax networks cost less than cellular-based data networks to build, that doesn't mean users will see dramatically lower service costs. Operators will set WiMax service prices at a level that maximizes their profits, and mobile data services will command a hefty premium relative to fixed-line broadband connections.

WisePort access is available at speeds of 512K bps (bits per second). The service -- which is still in the pilot stage -- costs S$140 (AUD$106) to activate with one WiMax modem, and is free for one year, according to a QMax sales representative. After one year, the service will cost around S$100 per month.

That's not particularly cheap, relative to cellular data services. For example, I subscribe to a 1M bps 3G data service that gives me unlimited data access for a monthly fee of S$22.

As the Sardinia pulled back into the marina to pick up another boatload of journalists waiting to try the WiMax network, I spoke with Alex Tan, director of QMax's parent company, Qala, about how shipping companies are using WiMax.

Most companies are using the WiMax network for backhaul, Tan said. For example, they are linking shipboard Wi-Fi networks with the Internet to download updates and corrections to navigation charts, he said, adding that WiMax costs substantially less than satellite Internet services, which is what ships use at sea.

"And the sailors love it, because they can Skype all they want in port," he said.