|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2004|
|Topic:||Wireless Broadband in Africa|
Mr Zvi Slonimsky has been CEO of Alvarion since the merger between BreezeCOM and Floware. He was originally CEO of BreezeCOM, having served previously as its President. Before this, Mr Slonimsky served as President and CEO of MTS Ltd. and General Manager of DSP Group, Israel. Mr Slonimsky has held senior positions in a variety of telecommunication companies, including C.Mer and Tadiran. Mr Slominsky is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost experts on fixed wireless systems. He advises carriers, ILECs and cellular operators on rolling out broadband networks in rural and urban areas with relatively poor telecoms infrastructures. Mr Slonimsky has a BSc.E.E. and MSc.E.E. degree from the Technion Israel Institute for Technology and an MBA degree from Tel-Aviv University.
The challenges facing telecom service providers are identical throughout the African continent: how to provide broadband connectivity in harsh and unforgiving landscapes. Unsurprisingly, wireless broadband (also known as broadband wireless access or fixed wireless access) emerges as ‘best in class’ for delivery of broadband services in these tricky environments. However, there is a vital new technology available, WiMAX, which is highly significant for operators in Africa. WiMAX may well be the key to removing the obstacles to broadband adoption throughout the World.
On the face of it, the tiny tropical island of La Reunion has very little in common with Namibia. One is a tiny tropical island east of Madagascar with an active volcano and periodic, devastating cyclones. It is loved by surfers and climbers alike for its dramatic mountain ranges, deep gorges and beautiful coastline. The other spans over 800,000 square kilometres, much of it hot, dry desert, with sparse rainfall and prolonged periods of drought. To the layman, there are no similarities. But for telecoms professionals the challenges are identical in La Reunion, Namibia and throughout the African continent: how to provide broadband connectivity in such harsh and unforgiving landscapes; how to best connect the businesses, public institutions and residents who are demanding fast, reliable and inexpensive internet access; and how to build a scalable broadband network quickly, whilst minimising initial capital costs. Having weighed up the challenges and considered and dismissed, the majority of the options available – namely, ADSL, Satellite and Cable Modems – it comes as no surprise that wireless broadband – also known as broadband wireless access (BWA) or fixed wireless access – emerges as ‘best in class’ for delivery of broadband services in tricky environments. But before we examine how and why BWA claims this position, a quick review of how it works. In a nutshell, a fixed wireless network comprises one or more base stations to cover a town or area of a city and the many customer premises equipments (CPEs) used by customers to get service. The base stations are connected to the backhaul network and send and receive transmissions from the CPEs using radio links. Each CPE can serve an entire building – whether it contains one family or 20 companies. The base stations and CPEs can communicate over ranges of up to 50 miles, enabling operators to deliver broadband IP-based voice and data services across virtually any landscape – including the mountainous terrain of La Reunion and the deserts of Namibia, which both boast highly successful wireless broadband networks. So successful are they, in fact, that SchoolNet in Namibia was recently named “best network in an under-served international community” by the Wireless Communications Association (WCA). SchoolNet, in partnership with Telecom Namibia, has deployed a wireless broadband network in the 5.8 Ghz frequency band to provide Internet access and voice services to more than 900 rural schools in a region spanning an area of 54,000 square kilometres. It is all the more remarkable that, previously, more than two-thirds of the schools now connected did not even have a telephone line. Given Namibia’s sparse copper and cable infrastructure, Internet access has been an unattainable dream for schools outside of Namibia’s municipal centres. Now, wireless technology has saved the day – by providing an affordable way to bring the Internet to the majority of Namibian schools and students and give them the same opportunities as the rest of us enjoy. It is not just Namibia that this model is important, it could potentially be replicated in many other parts of Africa. Meanwhile, in French-ruled La Reunion, Cegetel – the telecom arm of French conglomerate Vivendi and France’s second largest ISP – has overcome the island’s rugged terrain, which makes the laying of fibre impossible, by deploying a wireless network. The network was first deployed to feed the base stations of Cegetel’s GSM voice network and then used to provide Internet access to customers around the island. What makes wireless so attractive in Africa? Wireless connectivity is proving to be extremely attractive to telecom operators in Africa because: It is ideal for delivering voice and high speed data over the same infrastructure It requires low initial capital expenditures. It is easy to upgrade, grow and expand. Base stations share the same frequency spectrum and so, if a base station needs more channels (capacity), additional bandwidth is simply allocated on the backhaul link. Moreover, it enables operators to: Provide a full broadband service without any pre-existing copper infrastructure Provide ‘always-on’ broadband services, such as high-speed Internet access and data transmission, as well as high-quality voice services. Additional services include: VPNs, LAN interconnect access, telephony VoIP, data network access, video conferencing, ASP (application service provider) services, web hosting and E-commerce Reach areas not serviced by a traditional copper infrastructure Reach new subscribers quickly. Once the wireless network is established, new customers can be connected in hours Pay very low network operating costs that are proportional to the customer base and associated capacity needs. The non-line-of-sight conundrum: OFDM – a breakthrough for BWA Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) – a modulation technique for transmitting large amounts of digital data over radio frequencies – has achieved a major breakthrough in the BWA market. It enables fixed wireless to operate not only in areas where there is a direct, unobstructed, line-of-sight, but, as well, in areas where the line-of-sight is obstructed. This means that BWA can be deployed anywhere and can overcome obstacles such as mountains in rural areas such as in La Reunion and buildings in suburban and dense urban areas. The other broadband options What are the other access technologies used around the world that, in theory at least, are also available to African operators. ADSL This is the best-known access technology, which runs over cables already used for telephone connections. It has just one problem – in most countries across Africa many rural areas don’t even have a telephone line to upgrade to DSL. Even when they do, it is usually far too old to be used for this ‘piggybacking’ operation without a major upgrade, which is expensive and economically unfeasible for the operator. In addition, even if the cable is upgraded, customers that live more than 5.8 km from the main telecoms exchange are beyond the reach of this service. Satellite Two-way broadband satellite services are still under trial worldwide. However, satellites are massively expensive to launch and, often, are not economical for smaller projects. Cable modems Since there is little or no cable infrastructure throughout most of the African continent, broadband via this technology is also a non-starter. WiMAX: the future of BWA technology In 2003 Sean Mahoney of Intel described WiMAX as “more important than the Internet itself”. and Pyramid Research has described WiMAX as “the latest and most-hyped generation of fixed wireless technology in years”. Statements which, naturally enough, have got tongues wagging around the globe. How then does WiMAX tie into BWA and what are the implications for African operators? WiMAX is a not-for-profit industry organisation which is rolling out a certification programme to ensure that all the different types of wireless access equipment conforming to the 802.16a standard, including base stations and CPEs, are compatible and interoperable with other systems. Wireless networks built using WiMAX-compatible equipment will be capable of transmitting around 70 Mbps over a distance of tens of miles to thousands of users from a single base station. The development of WiMAX is significant for operators in Africa and throughout the world for a number of reasons: standards-based, interoperable equipment available from a variety of vendors will drive price and performance to levels unachievable by proprietary approaches. Plug-and-play products will result and service providers will be able to combine equipment from multiple equipment manufacturers secure in the knowledge that it will be compatible lower equipment prices will result from volume production of certain components service providers will be able to use WiMAX systems to provide broadband backhaul infrastructure to the growing number of WiFi ‘hot spots’ and address the evolution of mobile cellular networks. With over 67 organisations – including prominent operators, infrastructure providers and BWA innovators – working together, WiMAX is the key to removing the obstacles to broadband adoption throughout the world. The year 2004 will be a significant milestone for the provision of broadband. As the first WiMAX-compatible equipment is unveiled, the number of BWA networks around the world will explode; WiMAX will be deployed in many instances in preference to DSL and other technologies. Fixed wireless WiMAX networks – the future of broadband in Africa Millions of users around the world already rely on BWA to provide broadband connectivity; with the advent of WiMAX, these millions will become billions. Broadband need no longer be seen as a luxury available only to those living in Africa’s large urban areas. Thanks to fixed wireless and the WiMAX networks of the future, operators will continue to connect villages and towns in the remotest areas, which have never had any kind of telecoms infrastructure before. Imagine how the lives of people in these areas are changing – the world has gotten significantly smaller.