Boxing Day launch for Unwired laptop card

David Spence Sydney wireless carrier Unwired plans to start selling a long-awaited PCMCIA card version of its broadband modem for laptops on Boxing Day. The public launch -- originally planned for June -- follows on from a limited mid-October debut to selected customers in North Sydney, Parramatta and the inner west.

David Spence
David Spence
Sydney wireless carrier Unwired plans to start selling a long-awaited PCMCIA card version of its broadband modem for laptops on Boxing Day.

The public launch -- originally planned for June -- follows on from a limited mid-October debut to selected customers in North Sydney, Parramatta and the inner west.

Unwired has previously attributed the delays to excessive drainage of notebook batteries by a previous version of the card supplied by Navini Networks.

"We've started distributing some of them now, and we'll pretty much kick it off after Christmas," the carrier's chief executive David Spence told ZDNet Australia . He confirmed the scheduled date was 26 December.

But the executive also confirmed the card -- unlike the equivalent desktop version -- could not be upgraded with software to utilise the WiMAX mobile broadband standard that was formally ratified last week by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

While Unwired's network is currently based on a proprietary standard from Navini, the carrier has long said its technology could be upgraded to WiMAX, which Spence estimates could deliver speeds of up to 2Mbps. Current Unwired plans are limited to 1Mbps.

"We are expecting to obtain [cards] which can be upgraded to operate within a WiMAX environment in the early part of next year," said the company's chief technology officer Eric Hamilton.

Hamilton added that work to make Unwired's network compatible with any WiMAX device would be completed around a year's time.

"Our timings for that at this stage are towards the end of 2006 or early 2007," he said.

Spence said Unwired expected to upgrade its base stations to a 'dual-mode' configuration that could support both the Navini and WiMAX standards simultaneously in 2007 -- around the same time the first laptops with in-built WiMAX connectivity are expected to hit the streets.

"We'll be able to support both sorts of customers with the same tower," he said.

Unwired's chief said the PCMCIA card launch would be a "a little bit more business-focused" than that of the desktop modem, which is sold through retail outlets like Harvey Norman.

The launch comes after Vodafone and Optus started selling similar laptop cards that allow customers to utilise their joint third-generation (3G) mobile phone network for Internet access at speeds of up to 375kbps. That network is for the time being confined to Sydney and Melbourne, with some additional Optus-only infrastructure in Canberra.

Rival operators Telstra and Hutchison have both had similar 3G solutions for some time.

Interoperability
Spence welcomed last week's ratification of the mobile WiMAX standard.

"We're very pleased that the standard's been agreed to, and this is the start of the roll towards when WiMAX is a global standard, and devices around the world can all move from one country to another and work, as well as within Australia," he said.

"It means for us that we can be confident that where we're going is in the right direction, and the technology we're deploying as a path towards the standard, so when the chips come out from Intel and get put into laptops and other devices, they will work on our network."

Eric Hamilton
Eric Hamilton

"We've been telling our shareholders that we expected [the standard] to be ratified by the end of 2005, and we're pretty relieved it has been," said Spence.

Keeping their options open
Although the hype surrounding Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services in Australia is reaching fever pitch, with telco iiNet recently saying it was signing up 1,000 people on average each week, Spence said Unwired would not follow and launch its own branded VoIP solution.

Spence said it would "be crazy" for Unwired to offer its own service: "[iiNet's managing director] Michael Malone's a very smart guy… But we think that there are going to be so many voice software packages available in the next year, and the customers are going to choose whichever one they want, whether it's Yahoo, or Google Talk or Skype, or Freshtel or engin, or any other sorts of devices."

The chief executive said research conducted in October revealed eight percent of Unwired customers had cancelled a fixed-line phone service since signing up with the Internet service provider, or did not have a phone line in the first place.

"We'd say about half of those probably got rid of the second line into the home. And half of those are students who just use a mobile phone and our wireless broadband service," said Spence.

The survey of almost 2000 customers also revealed 46 percent rated no need for a phone line as the number one reason for choosing Unwired.

The executive declined to comment on which capital city Unwired would launch its network in next, on the back of a AUD$37 million funding injection from Intel late last August.

"We're working in the other capital cities at the moment," he said. "We don't plan to launch them all together. I think as the networks develop we'll open up sectors at a time in each city. But we haven't said which city yet."

Spence denied there was a threat from Telstra's recently announced plans to build a next-generation Fibre-to-the-Node network, which could wipe out some of Sydney's broadband blackspots.

"No," said Spence. "Most of our customers come from the inner-city areas around Sydney." The October data also showed 85 percent of customers chose Unwired despite ADSL or cable alternatives. "With WiMAX we also see a lot of machine-to-machine business starting to occur… From vehicles and other devices to our base stations, and then back to companies' central servers," added Spence.

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