Softbank joins WiMax fray

Japanese mobile operator to start wireless broadband trials, following similar moves by NTT DoCoMo and KDDI.

Japan's Softbank Group will be starting WiMax trials in Tokyo in September.

The trial will let Softbank assess the effectiveness of WiMax as a wireless broadband technology and its potential to be integrated with the company's portfolio of telecommunications services, according to a statement Tuesday.

To be conducted over five months, the trial will focus on the performance of WiMax in the 2.5GHz spectrum, particularly with regard to throughput and range, as well as the speed of network handovers between access points.

WiMax is a wireless technology that supports data speeds from 1Mbps (megabit per second) to 5Mbps. While Wi-Fi networks only cover a radius of 50 feet, WiMax technology can transmit signals up to 20 miles away.

The latest move underscores the growing interest in wireless broadband in Japan, with major telcos in the country already rolling out similar network trials. In March, NTT DoCoMo announced a year-long trial of mobile WiMax in Tokyo's Yoyogi area. KDDI has also conducted a similar trial in Osaka.

Motorola is supplying the equipment for Softbank's WiMax trial. The U.S. cellphone maker will be deploying five WiMax access points and 25 prototype WiMax mobile handheld devices. At the same time, Motorola will also showcase the MIMO (multi-input, multi-output) capabilities of its WiMax products in supporting multi-antenna telecommunications systems.

Meanwhile, Motorola has been driving the development of WiMax by collaborating with companies like Intel. Motorola recently won a nationwide contract to deploy a mobile WiMax network in Pakistan.

Junichi Miyakawa, executive vice president of Vodafone K.K., which Softbank acquired in April this year, said Softbank "has been preparing to provide innovative new services to launch full-scale wireless broadband services and to realize a true ubiquitous society".

Neale Anderson, research director at analyst company Ovum, said mobile WiMax presents a good opportunity for service providers to address the declining market for mobile data services based on the Japanese-developed PHS (Personal Handyphone System) technology.

According to Anderson, PHS operators supply most of Japan's estimated two million data card services, offering speeds of up to 128 kilobits per second. Until now, established Japanese operators have shown little interest in this market, which has largely been unprofitable. NTT DoCoMo, for instance, stopped signing up new PHS subscribers in April 2005, and it plans to shut down its PHS network shortly.

Mobile WiMax
Mobile WiMax is increasingly popular among wireless broadband service providers, because it allows users to stay connected on the go. "Fixed" WiMax, on the other hand, requires users to stay put at a computer terminal to access the Internet. Motorola, a key proponent of WiMax, has said it will not develop products based on fixed WiMax, choosing to focus on its mobile variant instead.

    "Consequently, we believe that this [PHS] market will be very attractive to new wireless broadband providers," Anderson noted.

    WiMax in Asia
    In Seoul, South Korea, SK Telecom and Korea Telecom recently launched mobile WiMax services based on the homegrown WiBro standard. Developed by global electronics giant Samsung, WiBro allows users to maintain their wireless broadband connections even while traveling in their vehicles at speeds of 120 kilometers per hour.

    Malaysia's Jaring has also introduced WiMax services in the country's Klang Valley, while Singapore's MobileOne is slated to roll out a similar service by year-end.