It wasn't too long ago that critics of WiMax wireless technology were declaring it dead at the starting gate.
The newly-installed Rudd-Conroy show nixed the previous government's WiMax-based OPEL roll-out, favouring the winding path that has led us to the current NBN process. Critics said emerging 3G networks had the bandwidth and ubiquity that WiMax start-ups lacked. However, it appears somebody forgot to tell Seven.
The announcement that Seven will build its own WiMax network across Perth represents a major step in the network's long-term content strategy. That strategy began last year with Seven's Unwired acquisition, and has gained currency as IPTV gains momentum.
Rivals may have to wait until the NBN becomes widespread — or until they can access the 700MHz spectrum that will be freed up when analog TV goes dark in 2013 — before they can start broadcasting using IPTV in anger. Seven's privileged access to WiMax spectrum means it can get a valuable head-start. Its experiments in Perth (through subsidiary Vivid Wireless, which presumably has no relation with US adult entertainment giant Vivid Entertainment) will therefore be closely watched by both the internet and broadcast industry as Seven becomes the first network to seriously match online content with the actual delivery of internet services.
Wholesale costs removed, Seven can build a striated service offering ranging from basic Internet access and mobile broadband, to video services with unmetered Seven and third-party content.
The fact that Seven can directly service its customers without relying on Telstra's ADSL services is a significant one: wholesale costs removed, Seven can build a striated service offering ranging from basic internet access and mobile broadband, to video services with unmetered Seven and third-party content such as Foxtel, in which it recently bought a significant interest. Plug a Freeview PVR or TiVo into the WiMax modem and Seven can instantly deliver streaming digital TV and video-on-demand services anywhere across its network. Add VoIP services and you've got an instant triple-play service with no intermediaries. Replicate this in other metropolitan areas in the long term, and you've got a serious contender for cabled and fibre-optic pay TV services.
WiMax has already been shown to work fine in other countries, and a major roll-out in the US is steadily peppering major cities with bandwidth. In Australia, however, WiMax got a bad name after an ill-considered roll-out by Hervey Bay ISP Buzz Broadband and a FUD campaign by carriers favouring the rival 3G broadband technology in which they had invested.
Labor's decision to stop the OPEL WiMax contract was a very large coffin nail for the technology, and even a successful roll-out in South Australia has failed to ignite the country's imagination. (Two recent ZDNet Australia podcasts #1 and #2 caught up with WiMax's footprint in this country).
It hasn't taken long, however, for 3G to be exposed as being woefully under-prepared for the demands that triple-play services put on it. All mobile carriers offer 3G broadband services, and none of them can provide more than a few megabits per second despite claims of 7.2Mbps, 21Mbps or more in the future — and that's in best-case scenarios. Repeated outages on the Optus network and an 11-hour outage that hit Vodafone's Perth network this week illustrate the high-wire balancing act 3G has forced the carriers to pull off.
Factor in inevitable interference, attenuation, latency, congestion and handover overheads, and few 3G services are actually delivering even 1Mbps. So while it's fast enough to support delivery of short mobile-sized and mobile-quality video clips (even Telstra's Mobile Foxtel isn't live), 3G just isn't up to the kind of continuous, high-bandwidth usage that Seven's network will enable.
It hasn't taken long for 3G to be exposed as being woefully under-prepared for the demands that triple-play services put on it.
In theory, that is. Because any large-scale roll-out like this is fraught with potential pitfalls. Unwired has already tried and failed to compete against the mobile giants before, suffering the same fate as one-time broadband innovator iBurst, whose proprietary network was shut down last October.
This time around, though, Seven has more tools at its disposal. Its involvement with TiVo and FreeView has provided new conduits for fresh content, while WiMax will provide the crucial last-mile connection. The choice of Perth is an excellent one, since its size and total geographic isolation makes it an ideal testbed for large-scale carriage-and-service deployment.
Taken together, WiMax offers an important new direction for Seven as it and its free-to-air competitors struggle to adapt to the on-demand online broadcast industry. Nine, Ten, ABC and SBS remain beholden to their ISP partners and whatever bandwidth they can eke out of widely variable ADSL services. And while they wait for comparable fibre or wireless spectrum, Seven can serve its customers in whatever way it wants.
Would you buy internet and content services from Seven (via Vivid)? Would your decision be based only on price, or do you see value in the types of novel content bundles Seven could offer?