US shows what OPEL could have been

US shows what OPEL could have been

Summary: Sprint's WiMAX roll-out in Baltimore will prove the Australian government's decision to worm its way out of the Opel WiMAX contract was a short-sighted, and ultimately damaging, political stunt that has benefited nobody.

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The US city of Baltimore, Maryland, population just under 1 million, may be best known to most Australians as the setting for last year's hit movie Hairspray.

Americans also know it for its 107-year-old Baltimore Orioles baseball team, its delicious Chesapeake Bay crabs, its world-class Johns Hopkins Hospital, and its homicide rate six times higher than that of New York City.

Baltimore Inner Harbor
(Credit: Jacqueline Munoz, Royalty Free)

This month, however, Baltimore will become known for two more things: first, it is the first place in the US where Sprint's new Xohm service — the name for its WiMAX wireless data service — has become officially available across the city. Second, it is the city that will prove that the Australian government's decision to worm its way out of the Opel WiMAX contract was a short-sighted, and ultimately damaging, political stunt that has benefited nobody.

It is now a bit over a year since the Optus-Elders partnership was given the green light by the previous government, and about six months since new minister Stephen Conroy decided that no progress was desirable to progress on the Coalition's terms.

Ask the residents of even moderately sized non-capital cities how their internet services are going, and you're likely to hear some grumbling. After all, Conroy has set his sights on frying bigger fish — building a nationwide next-generation infrastructure that will stand as a monument to Labor's nation-building prowess. Well, that was the theory, at least.

As we near the end of 2008 — the time when Conroy originally promised we would start seeing the first fibre-optic cable laid in the ground — and the NBN tender continues its rocky crawl forward, it's hard not to think about what might have been.

Heck, you don't even have to think about it: Baltimore — a onetime steel town and shipbuilding centre that would not be inaccurate to describe as America's version of Newcastle — is now leading the US in what will soon become one of the world's largest WiMAX deployments.

By Conroy's logic, Opel was the fruit of a poisoned tree that the Coalition planted, so Labor was setting up the guillotine from the moment it took office. Since Big Kev would rather spend that $1 billion funding his year-long world tour, Conroy would have had Buckley's of convincing him to up the government's commitment to broadband from $4.7b to $5.7b for two separate projects.

Heck, the way the economy's going I'm surprised Labor haven't pulled the NBN bid yet and diverted the money to get an early start on their 2010 re-election campaign.

At any rate, things in broadband are much the same as they were a year ago. Except that Telstra finally decided it should actually use its ADSL2+ equipment. And that Optus can't seem to keep its 3G network working for more than 10 minutes at a stretch.

Both of these facts are strong arguments for widespread availability of an alternative infrastructure, and I don't think I'm being partisan here when I say that it's bloody obvious that wireless suits rural areas to a T when it comes to landline replacements (of course, broadband over power lines worked well in rural areas too, but that potential game-changer got axed right quick too).

Instead, however, we have a government that bought Telstra's argument that WiMAX was A Terrible Thing — not the least because it completes with Telstra's perfectly good (I write this with a straight face) Next G network — which, by the way, will be pushed to 42Mbps some time real soon, ya'll hear?

Let me for a moment avoid getting stuck into that deceptive Marketing Department figure, and simply touch on what the fair people of Baltimore can now get. After buying a US$80 WiMAX modem, customers of the Xohm Home bundle will pay just US$35 per month (US$25 per month for the first 6 months) or US$50 per month for a combo plan that attaches a mobile data card to the service as well. As with most American broadband services, there do not appear to be download limits.

"Yes," you say, "but I bet it's not very fast." I'll let Sprint cover that: "We define High Performance level as average 2 to 4 Mbps download speed and 0.5 to 1.5 Mbps upload speed. Broadband access speed claims are based on our network speed tests. Many factors can affect performance. Actual performance and coverage may vary and is not guaranteed."

The Australian government's decision to worm its way out of the Opel WiMAX contract was a short-sighted, and ultimately damaging, political stunt that has benefited nobody.

Actually, this probably is a good time to get stuck into the 42Mbps figure. Telstra has a habit of overstating its capabilities and overestimating on its costs — just consider how many times it has revised its estimated NBN cost upwards, at a rate roughly paralleling Zimbabwe's inflation.

I'm thinking that someone in government heard Telstra promising 42Mbps and thought "stuff that, why should we spend a billion to deliver something one-tenth that speed when we can just axe Opel and use the dosh to keep Kev in First Class?"

Now, anybody who actually uses wireless data services — 3G, EDGE, GPRS, or even the many spotty WiMAX services currently dotting our country — knows that stated speeds are optimistic at best and grossly optimistic at worst and that, true to the laws of physics, performance starts to decline as soon as you climb down from the top of the antenna.

But the issue here isn't really one of performance — it's an issue of accessibility. And, outside of metropolitan areas, this is where Australia's broadband really falls down; Telstra may really be doing its best to make Next G a landline replacement, but — promises aside — it is still a pale second to a dedicated, data-only wireless broadband delivered by WiMAX or similar technology.

Love it or hate it, the sense Opel was giving was that their planned network would have delivered good-speed broadband to millions of people who are suffering along with dial-up speeds and using phone lines that will never, ever deliver better performance because of the way they were configured all those years ago. For them, nothing has changed since last year.

I acknowledge that Opel is gone forever — although I do expect Optus/SingTel have a battalion of lawyers ready to sue the bejeezus out of the government for the Opel cancellation once the NBN bid is decided.

But as the people of Baltimore — and, soon, Chicago (a city with more people than Sydney and Melbourne combined) and Washington, D.C. (also larger than Sydney) — go live with WiMAX, perhaps those who bagged the technology a year ago, sight unseen, will have to concede that maybe, just maybe, the axing of Opel meant that Australia missed out on something big.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Mobility, Networking, Telcos, Optus, Wi-Fi

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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Talkback

63 comments
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  • What to the home?

    It will be interesting to see if any of the bidders decide to use Wimax for any (and I mean any) of their last mile delivery. The copper may already be there but by the time the NBN finally gets off the ground Wimax may be at the point where it can provide faster service and due to it's setup it would be easier to maintain.
    anonymous
  • It is well known that...

    WiMAX as it stands with current profile 1 hardware can produce excesses of 30mbps per sector.

    However, sprint are being smart with their network resource planning and capping each user to a max of about 4mbps, which is smart. I'd love to see how you'd get 42mpbs on Telstra when to do so you effectively have to wipe everybody else off the mobile tower you're on to do you.

    Either way, the ditching of OPEL was a massive cockup by the Krud government. However, OPEL wasn't without its issues - rolling out a network on 5.8Ghz spectrum, which would barely penetrate a glass window, wasn't a smart idea.

    However, it was known that whilst Optus made the proposal, they were in talks with Unwired and Austar to use the 2.3Ghz WiMAX spectrum.

    What I find hilarious, is that at the end of the day, Krud is going to piss billions of tax payer money on a FTTN network which nobody wants and nobody will use, even more so, one which won't have any extended reach outside of current ADSL (because it simply JUST USES THE CURRENT COPPER NETWORK!) - Even worse, it only needs to provide up to 12mbps - LESS THAN CURRENT ADSL AND WiMAX!!

    Unwired recently demonstrated Mobile WiMAX in the Sydney CBD pumping out 13mbps, and I'll bet that was with 5Mhz of spectrum (of which they own 100Mhz of WiMAX spectrum).

    Far out, for a few hundred million we could have a decent national WiMAX network pumping out megabits and leave all this FTTN shit for dead! I'd quite happily ditch my 10mbps ADSL for a 1-4mbps (REAL MBPS, unlike Telstra and Optus, which struggle to get above 1.5mbps), mobile WiMAX connection.

    I'd laugh if it wasn't all so sad.
    anonymous
  • Partisan?

    "and I don't think I'm being partisan here when I say that it's bloody obvious"

    Why bother declaring your impartiality there, where it's barely relevant, when the rest of your article is full of snide comments about the current government?

    You bash Telstra's PR claims while quoting verbatim off Xohm's website, and you show no signs of having looked for independent test results of Baltimore's network performance. You're comparing the Wimax rollout in a city of 1 million people to the axed plan to deploy it across 1 million square kilometres.

    The real crime here is that your blog post got treated as a 'news story' on the front page of Whirlpool, giving you far more exposure than you deserve.
    anonymous
  • 42mbps!

    I too find it hard to accept speeds of 42mbits as realistic, when Telstra currently say that their network supports 14.4mbit down, and yet on their most up to date card available (a ExpressCard Sierra Wireless 880E) which supports 7.2 down and 2mbit up, my users (we use more than 1000 of these cards) can only achieve about 1mbit down and 500kbit up.

    We need regulation on wireless data speeds...
    anonymous
  • Links?

    "You bash Telstra's PR claims while quoting verbatim off Xohm's website, and you show no signs of having looked for independent test results of Baltimore's network performance"

    Can you provide some links to independent test results then?
    anonymous
  • Partisan?

    So it's OK to accept the spin from one side, but when "reasonable" claims about another viewpoint are expressed they should be denigrated because it is contrary to the original spin? Oh of course I forgot, NWAT is the paragon of impartial telco advice for the "Good Of Australia".
    anonymous
  • @partisan

    no its not ok sean, so you oughta try it too. i see you were the one who just had to mention nwat, just get iover it, geez.
    anonymous
  • @links

    provide links, haha. what for you and james to then dismiss because the author is *obviously* on the big t payroll? why would one bother when dealing with such biased clowns as you.
    anonymous
  • optus elders actually aquired the spectrum.

    "However, it was known that whilst Optus made the proposal, they were in talks with Unwired and Austar to use the 2.3Ghz WiMAX spectrum."

    actually they had come to a deal on that, the spectrum was theirs dependant on them actually completing the network and receiving the funding (seems not everyone was convinced that labor had any follow through.)
    anonymous
  • @@links .. hmmm

    Paul D posted saying there were independent testing results showing that Wimax performance was below par, I was interested in what he had read and was hoping that he could provide links to the information . If the Wimax rollout in Baltimore is operating sub par then maybe it's a good idea Opel didn't roll it out.

    What I find strange is your sudden jump in here to try and diss me for asking for this information, for all both you and I know it's perfectly valid and show the flaws of Wimax, but your suggestion that the information should be hidden in case it's proven as invalid and merely saying "it exists, trust me" is poor and really of benefit to no one.
    anonymous
  • Re: Links?

    Terry - no, but I'm not the one with an axe to grind. David clearly implies (based presumably on anecdotal evidence) that Telstra's network is not and will not be capable of 42mpbs regardless of what they promise but then blithe ly accepts Xohm's website's more modest claims with no evidence.

    What if Xohm is overstating their capability just as much as Telstra does?
    anonymous
  • @links

    my apologies but however, having dealt with those who ask for these types of links previously, they normally ask rhetorically! they ask to save face, but don't really want the truth and when the truth is supplied, the truth is, as you say dissed for no rational reason?
    anonymous
  • @Re: Links?

    "Terry - no, but I'm not the one with an axe to grind."

    Fair enough, I've read some of the negative aspects of Wimax and was just interested in reading testing done on a large scale real world implementation. If you're not willing to link to this information (for whatever reason) that's your prerogative guess.
    anonymous
  • @@links

    "my apologies but however, having dealt with those who ask for these types of links previously, they normally ask rhetorically! they ask to save face, but don't really want the truth and when the truth is supplied, the truth is, as you say dissed for no rational reason?"

    Is this like an X-Files thing, The Truth Is Out There but we're not doing to tell you what it is? :-)
    anonymous
  • @@@links

    yes thats exactly what it is. so I reiterate, obviously your question was rhetorical because you dont want the truth you just want to be a sarcastic p**ck.
    anonymous
  • @@@@links

    No I wanted a link to independent testing on the Baltimore Wimax rollout, I've done some googling and have found this .. http://www.infoworld.com/article/08/09/29/40TC-wimax-road-test_1.html?source=fssr .. which is a good independent test of Wimax in general (and shows that Wimax is good for what it is but not really a viable replacement to current technologies) but unfortunately it's not the Baltimore implementation being tested.

    Clearly a look at a the Baltimore rollout would be better due to it's scale, I'll guess I'll keep searching.,.
    anonymous
  • @@@@@links

    please do and thanks for the link.

    by the way, if you are, and i assume you are, the same terry that has been commenting lately, did you, speaking of links and learning, do as i suggested previously and google, graham lynch, prof cave and the others, to learn more about separation etc?
    anonymous
  • @@@@@@links

    Yes, same person, and honestly no I haven't, I left the last topic I posted in after it turned into a name calling fest so I must have missed that suggestion. But I'll do some searching on those later and have a read.
    anonymous
  • links again

    this is why i resist leaving links, because they are mostly ignored. but please check them out as these guys, as well as prof reg coutts, david kennedy, kevin morgan, have some interesting input. not the typical telstra bashing,so because so, are largely overlooked.

    terry, you sound like a reasonable person, so i apologise for automatically putting you in the same category as others who also name call, hence my aggressive approach toward you, which you didnt and dont deserve.
    anonymous
  • Isn't that where you source your information though?

    What's wrong with bringing up nwat, afterall they were the the most vocal, if not the only major crtitics of OPEL? Now many thousands of people have been left with absolutely nothing, and putting the fact that wifi was only going to be provided at the retail level by OPEL many also forget the backhaul fibre competition it would have brought opening the door to numerous other opportunities.
    anonymous