WiMax battle looms in Philippines

Globe Telecom's WiMax launch finally brings wireless broadband platform to Philippines, but its rival is heating up competition in this space.
Written by Melvin G. Calimag, Contributor

MANILA--The wireless broadband platform has officially reached the Philippines, after local operator Globe Telecom last week launched the country's first WiMax service. But, its main competitor has followed up with its own WiMax plans, heating up competition in this space.

Even as Globe made its formal announcement Thursday, main rival Smart Communications held a concurrent press event to disclose it has upgraded its network infrastructure with an HSPA (high-speed packet access) system to enhance its various mobile broadband offerings. At the same time, Smart also revealed it would roll out its own WiMax service, likely to be ready for launch in the fourth quarter of this year.

Analyst firm Ovum said Globe's WiMax deployment in the Philippines would give consumers an alternative way to connect to the Internet.

"No doubt WiMax will face competition [from other competing platforms], but this technology provides another option for users to get broadband," Nathan Burley, Ovum's analyst for Asia-Pacific, said in an e-mail interview.

The new service would help the Philippines increase its broadband penetration rate, Burley said, but acknowledged that operators in the Asia-Pacific region that have deployed WiMax are currently seeing varying success levels.

Chipmaker Intel joined Globe at the media launch last week to introduce the wireless platform. Both companies had jointly conducted WiMax trials, since 2005, within the southern province of Cavite.

According to Globe, which is owned by the Zobel de Ayala family and Singapore carrier SingTel, its network is the "first and biggest 2.5 GHz WiMax (802.16e standard-based) broadband network in Southeast Asia".

Jennifer Joy S. Santos, head for landline and Internet services at Globe, said in an interview that "a few thousands subscribers" have already signed up for the service since its soft launch last month.

Globe expects this subscriber based to rise significantly when the company expands its WiMax footprint in the country, Santos said. So far, the service is only accessible in key areas in the three main islands of the Philippines--select areas in Metro Manila, Cavite, Batangas, Laguna Quezon (for the Luzon island), Cebu, Bacolod, Dumaguete, and Silay City (for the Visayas island), and Cagayan de Oro City (for the Mindanao island).

Globe's WiMax service is available in three monthly postpaid packages: 795 pesos (US$16.5) for 512Kbps data speeds with Internet access only, 995 pesos (US$20.7) for 512Kbps plus landline, and 1,295 pesos (US$26.9) for 1Mbps plus landline.

Santos, however, said this pricing scheme, as well as the cost of its WiMax services, may change in the next few months as the platform becomes more pervasive. The company may also offer a prepaid model, she said.

Critical mass in GSM
Smart, however, said it prioritized upgrading efforts on its GSM infrastructure because "that's where the critical mass is [right now]". Installed by Ericsson, its HSPA network would also allow Smart to provide faster Internet connection of up to 5.8Mbps per user, the mobile operator said.

Aside from enhancing its 3G mobile connection, Smart said HSPA would also boost the speed of its other broadband offerings such as Smart Bro fixed and mobile broadband services, which run on the company's cellular base stations.

Magnus Gall, an executive at Ericsson Philippines, said during the press briefing that HSPA has "inherent advantages" over WiMax. He noted that HSPA is a more versatile network and has greater deployment potential since it is a natural evolution of the widely popular GSM technology.

However, Mar Tamayo, Smart's head of network services division, said the company's investment in HSPA does not mean it is neglecting its WiMax plans. Tamayo acknowledged: "WiMax is actually a good fixed wireless technology."

He revealed that Smart has already filed an application with the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to deploy WiMax services in the Philippines. The regulatory body, however, has yet to grant the frequency needed for Smart's rollout, according to Smart.

Industry observers say the NTC has been slow, if not reluctant, in setting the policy and regulatory framework for WiMax. A telecom executive, who declined to be named, said WiMax could have been deployed earlier if not for the agency's lethargic actions.

Ovum's Burley said governments have a critical role to play because they can help make it easier for operators to deploy new technologies. However, he said too much direct involvement can also inhibit innovation, competition and speed of deployment.

Melvin G. Calimag is a freelance IT writer based in the Philippines.

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