By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day – 12 November 2009

WiMAX is a 4G wireless technology that is playing an increasingly prominent role in many parts of the world and will be competing head on with the next generation mobile technology 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE). But WiMAX has a head start over LTE because networks using this technology are already up and running and providing services in many parts of the world, including Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and the US.

“The US is a first world country and Africa is an emerging market, but the application of WiMAX is similar across all geographies,” says Rick Rogers, MD of Alvarion in SA. He says as a 4G technology WiMAX offers a fully digital platform designed with IP (Internet Protocol) at the core of the network, which supports video, IPTV, data and voice.

This is in contrast with 3G, which supports data services on GSM voice networks. The latest version of WiMAX provides fixed wireless, for example to a house or business premises, fixed mobile, which allows users to move from one location to another and re-connect to the service from there, and full mobility whereby users are permanently connected wherever there is coverage, as with cellular communication.

This means one investment for the operator or service provider for the whole range of fixed, nomadic and mobile functionality, which can be switched on as market demand justifies it, says Rogers. In SA, Telkom, Sentech, Neotel and iBurst have WiMAX licenses and the regulator Icasa is under pressure to issue licenses and spectrum to other industry players.

“Across the rest of Africa, there are already 60 WiMAX operators,” says Rogers. He says African ISPs were already delivering WiMAX services to customers two years ago while the mobile operators were occupied with keeping up with the demand for GSM voice services. Meanwhile the fixed line operators were trying to come up with a counter-strategy to get back customers they were losing to the mobile operators by getting mobile licenses.

“But we are now seeing a new breed of operators that are using WiMAX to deliver high-quality voice, video and data services,” says Rogers. One of these is Mobitel, which is rolling out WiMAX services in Nigeria based on Alverion’s BreezMAX solution and is aiming to target hundreds of thousands of businesses and consumers.

The plan is to start in the cities of Lagos, Port-Harcourt, Warri and Abuja with about 20,000 users, with the second phase expanding to 18 other towns. Nigeria has the highest population in Africa with 150 million, which is an indication of the potential for WiMAX services there.

WiMAX operators are also emerging in the US, such as DigitalBridges and Openrange, says Rogers. He says with Intel and other chip manufactures supporting the technology, an increasing number of the laptops and netbooks that are emerging will have built-in WiMAX capabilities.

In Africa today, the priority is to use fixed WiMAX services with a PC or laptop and USB modem to access the internet as opposed to using it on a mobile basis, even though the networks have this capability. But in the US operators like Sprint are bundling WiMAX services with smaller tablet devices, says Rogers.

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