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Africa, Middle East offer best regional prospects for WiMAX

04 May 2010   |   10:00 pm
THE relatively low take-up of fixed broadband and indeed any fixed lines and growing demand for data services, especially in some emerging economies such as in some parts of Africa and the Middle East are gradually given room for the adoption of the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) technology. Specifically, WiMAX is a cutting edge…
THE relatively low take-up of fixed broadband and indeed any fixed lines and growing demand for data services, especially in some emerging economies such as in some parts of Africa and the Middle East are gradually given room for the adoption of the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) technology. 

Specifically, WiMAX is a cutting edge technology aimed at providing wireless data over long distances in variety of ways ranging from point to point links to a full cellular type. It is the next-generation of wireless technology designed to enable pervasive, high-speed mobile Internet access to the widest array of devices including notebook PCs, handsets, smartphones, and consumer electronics such as gaming devices, cameras, camcorders, music players, and more.

Though, the prospects for WiMAX seemed to have dimmed somewhat in the past couple of years as a result of the strong growth of High Speed Packet Access (HSPA), which is often seen as a rival to WiMAX, and a recession that has reduced the appetite for the spending necessary to build networks.

But both the Middle East and Africa continue to offer some of the best regional prospects for WiMAX, as a result of the relatively low take-up of fixed broadband – or indeed any fixed lines – and growing demand for data services.

The Middle East and Africa have the lowest household broadband penetration of all world regions, according to research by a global body- Informa Telecoms & Media.

According to it, household broadband penetration in the Middle East as a whole was 9.39 per cent at end of third quarter of 2009, and in Africa it was just 2.25 per cent.

Of course, those figures conceal considerable intraregional variation. The rate of household broadband penetration is very high in some of the small Gulf States – above 90 per cent in both Kuwait and Qatar – but in Jordan it was 18.85 per cent at end of third quarter of 2009, in Iran 2.97 per cent and in Syria only 0.45 per cent.

Furthermore, the report shows that in Africa, a number of major operators – including MTN, Orange and Safaricom are using WiMAX, as are smaller operators and new entrants, stressing that it is generally cheaper and easier to build a WiMAX network than a new wireline network for the data services that are seeing rising demand.

It explained that WiMAX might also be a better bet for data than overloaded mobile networks, stressing that it can be used for backhaul on those cellular networks.

In Nigeria, Mobitel that just secured a 2.3GHZ licence has said that it will roll out it services in August on a WiMAX platform.

According to the Chief Executive Officer of Mobitel, Mr. Johnson Salako, this type of technology is the 4th Generation in telecoms ‘4G”, adding that WiMax standards combines the two delivery high speed broadband internet access over wireless connections.

He explained that the Mobitel WiMAX 4G network will offer broadband services at access speeds ranging one to 10 Mbps per subscriber giving the user uninterrupted internet access irrespective of location, “users will benefit by subscribing to our service in a variety of ways; these include high speed internet service compared to other broadband technologies *HSPA-GSM, 1x EX DO-CDMA, Wi-Fi.”

Also, Galaxy Wireless Communications Limited has launched Nigeria’s first portable plug-and-play broadband wireless service, G-MAXTM based on the emerging mobile WiMAX 802.16e standard in Abuja, the capital city and Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

G-MAXTM is a registered trademark of Galaxy Wireless Communications Limited for its product lines that best combine mobility with high data rates and ease of use by providing and offering a scalable, nationwide wireless broadband access network.

The G-MAXTM brand provides fixed and mobile wireless broadband Internet and data services at highly affordable costs designed to massively increase Internet penetration in Nigeria. It is the first plug-and-play nomadic broadband solution in Nigeria based on a hybrid of the Smart AntennaTM, Multi Carrier Wireless Information Local LoopTM and emerging WiMAX technologies.

Comium, which operates GSM networks in Ivory Coast, Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, plans to launch WiMAX services in those countries and five others (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia) by end-2010. Reliance WiMAX, a division of Reliance Communications, has acquired WiMAX licences or licensees in a dozen or more countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And Augere, a company set up by former Orange group executives, has launched WiMAX services in Pakistan and Bangladesh and plans to do so in Tanzania and Uganda in 2010.

So there is considerable activity and potential. But that should be kept in perspective: WiMAX subscription numbers remain modest, particularly in comparison with HSPA. There were 107,300 WiMAX subs in the Middle East at end-2009, and that number is forecast to rise to 717,000 at end-2014, according to Informa. Africa had 192,400 WiMAX subs at end-2009, and that number is forecast to rise to 2.53 million by end-2014.

But there were 8.02 million 3.5G+ (HSPA and beyond) subscriptions in the Middle East at end-2009, and that will rise to 145.33 million at end-2010, according to Informa forecasts. In Africa, there were 6.2 million 3.5G+ subs at end-2009, a figure expected to rise to 138.51 million at end-2014

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the report stated showed that in Saudi Arabia, household broadband penetration was 33.85 per cent at end-3Q09, a lot lower than in some of its small Gulf neighbours. And Saudi households tend to be large, so population broadband penetration is a lot lower, at just 5.63 per cent at end-3Q09.

New Saudi fixed-line operator Etihad Atheeb is among those seeking to take advantage of the country’s relatively low broadband penetration by developing what it says will be the largest WiMAX network in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Only the Clearwire network in the US and Wateen in Pakistan will be bigger, according to Etihad Atheeb. Etihad Atheeb launched its service in June under the Go brand, and by October it said it had 45,000 subscriptions. Go is offering residential subscribers a free WiMAX/Wi-Fi modem and plans that cost as little SAR109 (US$29) a month. Go is also offering a USB modem for portable use.

Although Go is using the mobile 802.16e version of WiMAX technology, it is licensed as a fixed operator and so can offer only fixed and nomadic services and not mobile. But Go says the Saudi regulator should introduce a unified licensing programme that accommodates the blurring of the lines between fixed, nomadic and mobile. Such a move would also allow Go to offer mobile services.

Saudi Arabia’s No. 2 mobile operator, Mobily, acquired local WiMAX operator Bayanat Al-Oula as a means of targeting the fixed-broadband market. In mid-2009, Mobily awarded Samsung a US$100 million contract to expand the Bayanat network to cover up to 20 cities. Mobily says it will bundle WiMAX with other services, including its extraordinarily successful HSPA mobile broadband service. Mobily says the two services are complementary, with the HSPA service being designed for mobile use while WiMAX is for fixed (even though Mobily uses the mobile 802.16e version of WiMAX).

Zain Bahrain also regards its WiMAX and HSPA services as complementary offerings, aiming its WiMAX service aimed at the fixed-broadband market and its HSPA service at mobile broadband customers. But Bahrain’s Mena Telecom, which also offers WiMAX services, plans to take advantage of the Bahraini regulator’s ruling that the country’s WiMAX operators can offer mobility starting in November.

In Jordan, Zain says it launched WiMAX services because it did not have a 3G license, but it did have WiMAX and ISP licenses and wanted to move further into the broadband market. In fact, Jordan’s WiMAX market is among the busiest in the region, as a result of liberalisation, the country’s low broadband penetration and the absence of 3G services.