news analysis When the government announced that Optus and Elders had won the bid to build Australia's bush broadband network, it provoked jeers and plaudits alike, but it was the ISPs' choice of WiMax as the bearer technology that has provoked the most furious storm of argument. Just how will the technology stand up to life in the bush?
WiMax -- for the uninitiated, a long range Wi-Fi capable of providing Internet access over kilometres rather than metres -- has started gathering momentum in recent years. The ratification of key standards, cheerleading from Intel and commitments from telecoms heavyweights such as US mobile operator Sprint to deploy the technology, have all given much-needed fuel to the WiMax bandwagon.
But the wireless tech has already proved its ability to split opinions. Those with an interest in the cellular standards claim that the next evolutions of High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) or Evolution-Data Optimised (EV-DO), and even Long Term Evolution (LTE) -- the next stage in the evolution path of 3G -- are better set up to be the next generation of data-bearing technology.
Telcos around the world are already working on the nebulous concept of 4G -- cellular connectivity that can provide speeds of 100Mbps mobile or even 1Gbps stationary. Such standards, however, are very much in the infancy of their trial phase, with tests limited to uber-telcos such as Japanese giant NTT DoCoMo.
Robin Simpson, research director mobile and wireless at analyst house Gartner, told ZDNet Australia WiMax, for the present, has one advantage over 3G-flavoured networks -- the path is more clearly defined.
"With HSPA, the only downside to the roadmap is it's not clear over the next three to five years. ... 50 to 100Mbps is a glimmer in a scientist's eye."
However, those barracking for a cellular connection see more flaws than the question of what speeds WiMax will reach. For Telstra, which missed out on supplying the bush's broadband network, it's a question of the environment that surrounds the technology. WiMax is a relatively new entrant, with 80 percent of the world's mobile connections made over GSM and its successors.
Mike Wright, head of networks at Telstra, told ZDNet Australia: "It's a connectivity rather than ecosystem, like GSM is." Due to its relative novelty, WiMax does not have anywhere near the same number of vendors providing kit -- be it handsets, data cards, embedded modems -- as GSM and 3G do."
The problem is only likely to be exacerbated by OPEL -- the joint venture between Optus and Elders that will build the WiMax network in question -- by the choice of standard it has picked.
There are currently two major standards, 802.16d, the fixed variant, or 802.16e, its mobile equivalent. 802.16d is more mature and has received its official certification, while 802.16e is more of a newcomer -- but its capabilities mean more tech companies are likely to focus on it in future and more products will be released to support it. However, OPEL, who didn't comment by the time of press, picked the fixed standard.
Nathan Burley, Ovum analyst, said: "One of the reasons it wasn't a super-safe decision was the type of WiMax and the spectrum deployed. That means there's potentially a standard that doesn't develop for some of the economies of scale."
Australia may be one of the biggest deployments of fixed WiMax around the world, yet in terms of number of users, it's still likely to be too small to persuade more new vendors to work on producing the necessary kit.Mobile WiMax, however, is being backed by many of tech's big names -- including Intel, which in the coming years, will be encouraging laptop makers to embed WiMax modems in much the same way as they do now with Wi-Fi. Nokia too intend producing phones compatible with mobile WiMax. If OPEL had chosen the mobile variant of WiMax, bush residents could not only use the connection for the broadband access but for their mobile access too -- an obvious bonus and potentially a much larger addressable market. So why choose the fixed variant?
For Ovum's Burley, the answer is clear -- Australia's complex telecoms regulatory history. "The government is not willing to provide money that could influence the mobile environment dramatically," he said.
OPEL's spectrum choice has also raised eyebrows. It's likely to be using the 5.8GHz, unlicensed spectrum. There is nothing to stop a rival provider setting up a WiMax network in the same spectrum and giving Aussies a nightmare of interference. Telstra's Wright describes it as "like public land -- any use is possible".
However, it's worth remembering that those who will use the network are bush users, and have therefore been chronically underprovided to date. If there had been multiple providers, the government would not have needed to step in with AU$1 billion of funding.
Other performance questions remain. One of the more hotly debated is how the technology will perform in the bush, with estimates of coverage ranging from 20 to 50 kilometres. Like any wireless technology, WiMax speeds will depend on geographical conditions as well as how much data users are putting over the network.
In a speech this week, Communications Minister Helen Coonan hit out at WiMax detractors. "The network design and rollout has addressed topography and local weather conditions and all equipment and installation costs will be metro equivalent, thereby ensuring country people don't pay more for the same service as available in our cities. Indeed, I read with interest over the weekend that the New Zealand government is preparing for a WiMax rollout in one of the hilliest countries in the world putting paid to concerns about topography raised by some commentators," she said.
Others have queried the speed WiMax can provide. The proposed bush broadband network will initially provide users with 6Mbps connectivity, later upgraded to 12Mbps. For all the government's talk of "metro-comparable" services, those on OPEL's network will be still be left behind urban users on ADSL2+.
Sheryle Moon, CEO of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), said the question of bearer technology is less important than the opportunities high-speed connectivity can offer Australian businesses.
"We're already falling behind rest of the world in broadband delivery to the citizen and that has an economic impact. Fewer than nine percent of SMEs can do business over the Internet -- in Europe it's 60 percent," Moon said.
The AIIA would like to see Australian broadband more on a par with the country's trading partners, somewhere in the region of 12 to 30Mbps, at the higher end of what OPEL has said its network will offer. "It's enough in the short-term," Moon added, "but the technology will have to scale up."