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Taking a ride on the WiMAX bus

During the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week, Motorola set up a WiMAX network covering 20 square kilometres of the city – in a mere three weeks. It then took journalists on a ride in a minibus equipped with a WiMAX-enabled laptop computer. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK went along for the ride.

Hossein Parandeh is not accustomed to acting as a tour guide. As marketing director for Motorola, he is in Barcelona to do serious business. But on this tour, he is enjoying himself enormously. Instead of having to show the passengers on the bus what is visible outside the windows of the vehicle, he is focused on what is inside ‚ and what is invisible outside.

On the streets of Barcelona, Hossein Parandeh feeds his passengers a WiMAX line (Pic: Gadget)

‚We have four WiMAX base stations on roofs around Barcelona, covering a 20 square kilometre radius,‚ he explains. ‚You can just stick a box to a pole with power and an Ethernet connection, and you have a base station.‚

Just such a connection has been set up at Motorola’s stand at the Mobile World Congress here in Barcelona, but the base stations around the city cannot be seen from the street.

A WiMAX base station on a lamp-post, demo’d

at the Mobile World Congress (Pic: Gadget)

What is highly visible, however, is the live TV feed on the laptop computer in the minibus. Parandeh looms over the laptop like a proud father.

‚To be honest, this is better than cable. On cable you usually get half a meg uplink. Here the uplink is easily 1.5-2 Megabits per second. The downlink is 3.5 Megs, allowing live movie viewing.‚

And indeed, we are watching a series of videos stored on the Web or broadcast via the Internet. The system makes quick work of a YouTube mini-movie ‚ no delay in the video stream is discernible.

‚Yesterday we watched Turkish TV, live, on this system. There was no packet loss, and the latency was 100 milliseconds. On commercial grade equipment, you get a latency of less than 50ms. So with 100ms, you can do Voice over IP at a quality that is superior to cellular calls.‚

What makes all this possible? Anyone who has signed onto a WiMAX trial or service in South Africa will know it requires a huge antenna, as well as perfect weather and no foliage between the antennae and the base station. And here we are riding around the city, no equipment stuck to the outside of the minibus ‚ or the inside, for that matter ‚ and we are getting a perfect signal.

Parandeh tells us that we are connecting to one of four base stations as we drive around, each connected back to a core network via a 50 Megabit per second microwave signal. The base stations each have three sectors, and each sector in turn has a 10 MHz channel transmitting at 2.5 GHz.

The technical details are meaningless, however, if the system doesn’t deliver a signal to the user, and at a performance level that makes sense to the user. That means having a modem that links a laptop to the WiMAX network ‚ and such devices are not yet commercially available. Fortunately for Parandeh, he works for a company that has just unveiled the first WiMAX PC card. A prototype is on display at the Motorola stand ‚ and in use on the WiMAX bus.

‚We’re bringing mobile WiMAX to the marketplace, and we are able to bring to the table access points, customer premises equipment, network infrastructure, and end-to-end management systems. The new generation PC card enables us to have multiple video streams. There are no more excuses about walking the kids or going to the park or beach because you have to watch a sports match. You’ve got Wi-Fi on steroids ‚ your whole city is a WiMAX hotspot.‚

However, WiMAX is not expected to replace WiFi in the short term. Rather, they will be complementary to each other, with WiMAX providing the high speed access to a WiFi access point, which in turn supplies a formal or ad hoc network of computers using that access point. Since most laptop computers sold today are fitted with WiFi cards, and the cost of WiFi cards for PCs has become negligible, even mobile WiMAX will initially be serving WiFi access points.

However, the card Parandeh is demonstrating here holds the longer term promise of freeing the user from the need for access points. The entire city does indeed become an access point ‚ at a fraction of the cost of rolling out a 3G cellular network for wireless broadband.

It is little wonder the mobile networks tend to be dismissive of WiMAX. However, Parandeh believes they, too, are coming round.

‚It now gives fixed wireless operators roaming capability at a fraction of the cost,‚ he says. ‚There’s nothing not to like.‚

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