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"The Wi-Max Opportunity": Sify Technologies

May 15, 2010
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The explosive growth of mobile phones in India is the best indicator of the potential of Wi-Max wireless broadband services in the country. The growth drivers for any wireless technology hinges on affordability, spectral efficiency (given the scarcity of spectrum), scalability, robustness, open standards and availability of harmonised devices across countries.

Wi-Max is the best-suited broadband wireless technology for India, especially considering the potential number of customers and the scarcity of spectrum. The technology has superior spectral efficiency (1 bit of data per hertz of spectrum) compared to 3G and provides a decent broadband experience to users. The WiMAX Forum is already planning to release its next version of Wi-Max, 16m, which should further enhance the spectral efficiency. The good news is that it is backward compatible with the current Wi-Max 16e standard.

The current Wi-Max deployments in India are more of Wi-Max 16d, which are fixed Wi-Max deployments, largely directed towards enterprise, small and medium enterprises and high-end home users. Wi-Max 16d is a first-generation Wi-Max technology and does not offer certain advantages that the current Wi-Max 16e technology does. These include near nonline-of-sight, interoperability and mobility (hand off between cells). The switch and deployment of Wi-Max 16e in India is still at a very nascent stage.

Growth drivers

The most important growth driver for Wi-Max adoption in India is the availability of harmonised wireless spectrum and interoperable customer premises equipment (CPE) devices in various forms.These include outdoor and indoor CPEs, a USB dongle, mobile handsets, etc. The 2.5 GHz and the 2.3 GHz bands have been identified as the harmonised bands for Wi-Max 16e by the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) wing of the Ministry of Communications for broadband wireless access. Interoperable CPE devices are also available in this band.

The current infrastructure status in India with respect to terrestrial connectivity in terms of fibre or copper rollout to the building or street is limited and would take a long time. This is primarily due to the cost of implementation, time taken and the bottlenecks in terrestrial connectivity. Wi-Max 16e becomes the best alternative to terrestrial connectivity in terms of bandwidth speed and reliability. Wi-Max also provides the option of quick and cost-effective rollout of the access infrastructure for wireless broadband services which is the need of the hour considering the dismal results of broadband penetration in India.

Challenges in implementation

The success of Wi-Max in India is not without its own set of challenges. While the auction for broadband wireless spectrum is under way, it is important to note that this entails substantial costs for service providers. This huge upfront investment on the part of the service provider, compounded by the initial infrastructure cost, will force the operator to make the services expensive. This would make keeping the promise of reaching the bottom of the pyramid a tall task. The quantum of spectrum being offered per service provider is only 20 MHz while the recommended spectrum allocation to an operator by the WiMAX Forum is 30 MHz.

Countries with much lesser potential than India have allocated frequencies in excess of 40 MHz per operator. This means the service provider will not be able to realise the full bandwidth capability of the base station equipment and would end up using the infrastructure suboptimally. This will result in increasing the cost of infrastructure to support the services. Quite naturally, with a huge customer base, one can expect to see service level degradations as the base grows.

There are only three slots of spectrum being auctioned per circle, including the incumbents BSNL and MTNL, which have already been allocated the spectrum. This translates into only three operators in a circle, thereby restricting the competition. The key to the success of broadband penetration in India today is indeed Wi-Max, but there is an urgent need for the government to identify additional slots of spectrum to be released for Wi-Max broadband access and reduce the cost of services.


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