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Everywhere I went, I was asked about broadband for both rural and urban environments, as it appears that New Zealand is trying to find the best model, or combination of models, to provide services where there are none today.

Broadband Everywhere and Some Ranting

Friday, May 18, 2007

I just returned from a weeklong trip to Wellington, New Zealand where I spoke at Convergence 07, a conference produced by The Wireless and Broadband Forum of New Zealand sponsored by Alcatel-Lucent, Qualcomm, New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, New Zealand Telecom, Ericsson, Kordia, Internet NZ, CityLink and a few other local businesses.

The program included a number of sessions, many of which had to do with broadband services, both fixed and wireless. I also met with a number of people from the various government agencies and as many companies as I could fit into my schedule. While the main thrust of the conference was about wireless, including traditional wide-area services, new WiMAX systems and some Wi-Fi thrown in for good measure, the real hot topic was New Zealand's push to provide broadband access to as many of its four million inhabitants as possible. Providing broadband services includes fiber, wired and wireless infrastructure. Unlike in the United States, cable TV access to the Internet is virtually non-existent, leaving telephone lines and fiber as the only two wired alternatives.

Providing broadband to every citizen in the nation is a hot topic and, in some respects, parts of New Zealand are ahead of much of the world because it has had a fiber core network in Wellington for more than ten years. On the wireless side of the equation there are two existing wide-area wireless networks (Vodafone with GSM/UMTS and New Zealand Telecom with CDMA2000 and 1xEV-DO Rev 0 and Rev A), some small existing pre-WiMAX point-to-multipoint networks and new networks that will be built on the 2.3-GHz spectrum that will be auctioned by the government in the near future.

The ideas for providing broadband are as diverse as the population. Some want the government to build out a wired and wireless system, some would like to see the Wellington model expanded (overseen by the City Council but run by local, for-profit companies). Others believe new WiMAX systems will provide both the technology and the economic model for success. Everywhere I went, I was asked about broadband for both rural and urban environments, as it appears that New Zealand is trying to find the best model, or combination of models, to provide services where there are none today.

The use of satellite systems for two-way broadband Internet access is sparse because of the costs involved, and everyone in the nation seems to have an idea about how to solve this problem. But at the end of the day, New Zealand is facing the same problems that most countries face. Does the government underwrite the costs? Do for-profit companies put in service and, if so, can they make any money providing broadband services to areas with sparse populations? To make matters worse, New Zealand, while small, is not an easy country to cover with RF because of the topography and the number of mountains that run throughout both the North and South Islands.

The government seems to be moving toward a multi-tiered approach. On one hand, it has a plan to break up New Zealand Telecom into several different companies including one that would own the existing wired infrastructure and would have to provide access to any and all companies that want to use their wired infrastructure for new services and coverage. It also wants to take back some of the spectrum held by Vodafone and New Zealand Telecom and auction it to provide more competition and it is planning to auction spectrum in the 2.3-GHz band.

Unlike in the United States, cable systems for TV are almost non-existent, and while satellite TV service is available, a larger percentage of the population is still watching television via over-the-air broadcasts. New Zealand is only now starting the process of adding HDTV capabilities and its transition date is not until 2015, which means the spectrum might not be available after the move to HD, as in the United States, won't be available anytime soon.

Like the rest of the world, there are a number of companies using Wi-Fi to extend broadband coverage in some areas. But unlike in the United States, the muni-Wi-Fi bug has not bitten New Zealand, which appears to understand the limitations of Wi-Fi, and at the moment its deployment is being restricted to hotspots.

WiMAX is coming to New Zealand, and the usual hype has preceded it. After I gave my keynote remarks, I was approached by a number of people who wanted to discuss WiMAX and its true potential. After the discussions, they admitted they needed to go back and rethink their business models. Their assumptions about the number of subscribers per site and the amount of data (including a lot of streaming video) were unrealistic considering the true capabilities of WiMAX.

There are some pre-WiMAX systems already in place providing coverage to small areas around Auckland and they are based on the pre-WiMAX nomadic standard (802.11d) and not the mobile version (802.11e). They are not happy about the fact that the WiMAX industry is moving toward an 802.11e-only world, even for point-to-multipoint, because it means the equipment they were expecting to come on the market probably won't be available to them until they change their systems over from d to e.

The net of all of this is that New Zealand, like many other countries, is trying to come up with solutions to make broadband everywhere a reality and finding a way to fund it. The ideal situation, as far as I am concerned, might be to combine resources with the government, the private sector and the First Responder community all taking part in providing a combination of wired and wireless services throughout the nation.

On to Ranting

It's been a while since I've ranted in my Commentary, so here goes.

Why is it that when I arrive in a country that has both GSM and CDMA coverage and roaming agreements with my U.S. network operators that roaming systems work so differently? When I exited the plane in Wellington, New Zealand and turned on my T-Mobile BlackBerry (GSM), I received a welcome text message that included dialing instructions―hold the 0 key down until you get a plus sign, then dial the area code and number. The message also told me which number to dial to reach my voice mail and provided a customer service number. Right on cue, my email started coming in within minutes of turning on my BlackBerry.

On the CDMA network, I knew I had service but didn't have a clue what to dial to call the United States. I tried several obvious combinations I had learned from recent trips to Hong Kong and elsewhere, but nothing worked. I finally gave up and called the network operator (NZ Telecom) and I was told to dial 001 prior to making a call. Roaming worked, but it took several tries and a phone call to figure out how. While I am on the subject, is the BlackBerry the ONLY GSM device smart enough to automatically add the plus sign to every number in my phone book? If there is another device out there that does this, I haven't found it yet! RIM certainly understands how to make life easy for those of us who travel!

In the speech I gave in New Zealand, I talked about the use of the Web (actually, not being able to use the Web) to configure my phone and try out applications I might want to use on my mobile phone. I wrote about this in a previous Commentary and several companies contacted me with their own ideas on how to do this. I learned that there are some exciting products coming soon to the Web that will enable us to purchase a phone, take it home and instead of spending time setting up all of the features directly on the phone, we will be able to set it up on a Web page and then download the settings to our phone. This seems to be common sense, so why has it taken the wireless industry so long to "discover" it?

In a recent interview with the Wi-Fi Alliance, I was briefed on the new certification for 802.11n technology, the fastest ever for Wi-Fi with claimed range increases of 30% over 802.11a, b and g. When I asked about the need for this increased speed, I was told that it will be used in homes to move video and audio from computers to our home theaters (a good thing). But when I asked about how they will let people know that it is actually the speed of the backhaul (your DSL, cable or T-1 connection) that determines actual throughput to the Internet, they basically said they don't think we need to be concerned about that.

The next issue I raised was that this is the first of the Wi-Fi technologies that works on both 2.4 and 5.8 GHz, which could lead to confusion. The Wi-Fi Alliance logo on each product will show A or B/G on the left side and N on the right side, but it will still be too easy for someone to walk into a store and buy a 2.4-GHz 802.11n card and a 5.8-GHz 802.11n access point and wonder why they can't get them to work together!

I was recently in a Radio Shack store where the sales rep was helping someone buy Wi-Fi for his home. He selected a b/g access point and an 802.11a PC Card. I could not help myself. As the rep was ringing up the sale, I had to butt in and ask if he knew the two products would not work together. His response was that since they were both Wi-Fi, of course they would work together!

The entire issue of backhaul for Wi-Fi is misunderstood by the general population. If I have a DSL connection to the Internet, what does it matter how fast my Wi-Fi connection is? If the Wi-Fi portion is 25 Mbps (802.11g) and my DSL is only capable of 1 Mbps of throughput, my system will only work at 1 Mbps! 802.11n might be faster, and it might provide more range (yet to be determined), but if I am connecting to the Internet, the real speed bottleneck is my backhaul-DSL or cable. The speed of the Wi-Fi connection is irrelevant. Even if I am in a hotspot that provides b/g compatibility with data speeds of up to 25 Mbps, if the backhaul is a T1 line, my connection speed will be a maximum of 1.54 Mbps, and that is shared bandwidth. Sometimes I have to laugh at the data speed numbers that are being thrown around. Faster is better, there is no doubt about it. But what really matters is the speed of the backhaul!

Okay, I got a few things off my chest so I feel better. There are more, though, and now with my blog, "TELL IT LIKE IT IS" on my Website, I can express my views as situations pop up. If you enjoy my Commentary series, take a look at my blog, and remember that both are now two-way; you can read what I have to say and then sign up and post your own comments, which will be published without censorship. Whether you agree or disagree, your comments will show up on my site!

Andrew M. Seybold

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