Wireless broadband isn't all that great

Service providers turn cool on wireless broadband after it's unable to meet the expectations painted by vendors.

SINGAPORE--Internet service providers that have dabbled with wireless broadband are now painting a less rosy picture of the much-hyped technology.

Jagbir Singh, group technology chief of India's Bharti Tele-Ventures, said there is a disparity between the claims made by proponents of wireless broadband, and reality.

Wireless broadband typically covers a range of up to 30 miles, delivering Internet access speeds of up to 75 megabits per second. This is more than 20 times the speed of the fastest wired broadband available commercially.

But it is a challenge in most cases to achieve the coverage that vendors have been plugging, Singh said, during this week's Wireless Broadband Week conference here.

He noted that customers would only get 30 to 40 percent of the promised wireless broadband signal strength. While the service provider could place outdoor antennas at the client's office premise to beef up signal strength, Singh said no customer would allow Bharti to install unsightly antennas.

Singh also emphasized that a business clientele requires consistent bandwidth connection to support critical broadband applications, but data throughputs promised by wireless broadband vendors have not been fulfilled.

Bharti provides wireless broadband services to business users in the Indian cities of Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad. It plans to deploy similar services in 25 more Indian cities. As an enterprise grade telecoms provider, Bharti has also worked with partners such as Ericsson and Nokia, that provide always-on support services for a large number of concurrent users, Singh said.

Most wireless broadband vendors, however, are small companies that do not have the financial clout to deliver similar support levels, he added.

Singh said: "I know it's very tough for them as well. Their technology is not mature and the price is not right.

"But at the same time, business customers demand 99.9 percent network availability, so operators will need support from the vendors (to address this)."

Wireless broadband vendors such as Soma Networks concurred.

Soma's COO Greg Caltabiano, said his company works with partner Sanyo Electric, to ensure it has the economies of scale to provide support for customers that need high-availability networks.

Look beyond data
For wireless broadband to take off, Singh said service providers have to venture beyond providing only data access. "Services such as VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) on wireless broadband will add to the overall ARPU (average revenue per user)," he said.

Kevin Lim, managing director of Pacific Internet (PacNet), a Singapore-based Internet service provider (ISP) with regional operations, echoed Singh's views.

"The key drivers of ARPU are moving away from providing Internet access, and toward service provision," he noted, adding that VoIP is one area his company is also exploring.

Furthermore, Lim said, it is the company's role to provide applications rather than connectivity. "I don’t think wireless broadband will replace DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable broadband (data delivery platforms)," he said.

ISPs such as PacNet, that have to rely on the incumbent's infrastructure to provide wired line connection, believe wireless broadband creates new access channels, thus increasing the market size for high-speed Internet services.

But it is not all hunky dory, as Lim realized during PacNet's wireless broadband trials in Singapore last year.

According to the company's managing director, building owners were worried about affecting the aesthetics of their skyscrapers when new base stations had to be installed on the building rooftops.

They were also concerned about the potential health hazard as a result of radiation omitting from the signal transmitters, Lim said. "Approval timelines (to install base stations) went on for much longer than expected," he recalled.

"Also, you may be able to get a (base station) site today, but there's no guarantee the building management will renew your contract after it expires", he added.

PacNet and Bharti are not the only ones who painted a less-than-rosy picture of wireless broadband.

An executive from mobile phone maker Nokia, last week said the technology has been oversold and is "bad hype".

And until the prices of wireless broadband modems fall to an affordable level, especially in price-sensitive markets such as India, Singh argued that there is no compelling reason to offer consumer wireless broadband services.

He explained that wireless broadband modems now cost between US$150 to US$300, while an ADSL (Asynchronous DSL) modem is available for only US$20. "How would I be able to compete? There's no market for me," he said. Because it is readily available over traditional copper phone lines, ADLS is currently a popular choice of broadband consumers.

However, another equipment maker Motorola, says the cost of wireless broadband modems will fall when more players join the fray to produce standards-compliant modems. For now, almost all wireless broadband products are proprietary.

Said Paul Sergeant, marketing director of Motorola's wireless broadband products: "The arrival of standards will result in interoperability (between networks and modems from different vendor) and drive the cost of wireless broadband down."

And as Malaysian operator Jaring discovers, there is a market for wireless broadband services in the urban and city locations. The service provider currently offers these services in Malaysia's Klang Valley, which encompasses the country's capital and largest city Kuala Lumpur.

In fact, home users in Klang Valley form the larger part of Jaring's customer base for wireless broadband, according to the company's CEO Mohamed Bin Awang Lah.

However, the same success would not be replicated if the service is offered to customers in rural areas.

Mohamed explained that wireless broadband is an ideal solution for serving regions devoid of physical Internet infrastructures.

Consumers in those areas, at least in Malaysia, do not have the financial means to afford wireless broadband modems, which Jaring sells for RM499 (US$132), he added. "That is the dilemma we have," he said. "And the only way to overcome the issue is to work with the government to subsidize services in rural areas."