WiMax Spectrum Owners Launch WiSOA

By Jeff Goldman

September 26, 2006

Overseas players hope their new group will spur deployment.

The WiMax Spectrum Owners Alliance (WiSOA), launched last week at an inaugural meeting in Paris, is the first global organization composed exclusively of owners of WiMax spectrum. The founding members are Unwired Australia, Network Plus Mauritius, UK Broadband, Irish Broadband, Austar Australia/Liberty Group, Telecom New Zealand, WiMAX Telecom Group, Enertel and Woosh Telecom.

Patrick Cruise O’Brien, the group’s secretary general, says the driving concept behind WiSOA is to focus on the issues specific to those who are actually building businesses around WiMax.

“The important thing to understand about WiSOA is its members have all had the WiMax debate,” he says. “We have all decided that WiMax is the future, and we have all committed to roll WiMax out within our businesses.”

The aim, then, is to put forward a perspective that’s fundamentally different from that of most 3G operators. “They view it as an extension to their existing networks, or an add-on technology – we view it as a disruptive technology which fundamentally changes the communications landscape,” O’Brien says. “It’s a break: it’s not an evolution. It’s an absolute break from what has gone before.”

Still, that’s not to say that the two can’t cooperate. “The GSM guys have massive capacity, massive coverage, and one of the things that we’ve agreed to do in WiSOA is to try and open a dialog with the GSM operators and say, ‘Look, this is what we want to do; this is what you want to do,” he says. “They are at a significant advantage today, but if we can work together, we should be able to add value to each other.”

One potential avenue of cooperation that was discussed at last week’s conference, O’Brien says, was the idea of a form of mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that uses WiMax. “Whether we can persuade the GSMers that that’s in their interest or not, I don’t know,” he says. “But we’re going to try.”

O’Brien says there are three key audiences for WiSOA – regulators, vendors and the capital market. “It’s a heavily regulated industry, and it is really important that the regulators know and understand and appreciate the position from which the operators are coming, so we’re talking to them now at various levels in a number of different countries,” he says.

For vendors, O’Brien says, the aim is to explain the needs that operators have in terms of pricing and functionality. “We want to go to the vendors and say, ‘Look, these are the issues – this is what it has to do, this is the price point at which it has to come in to make this viable – and if you do all of this, if you can match these criteria, we are all customers,’” he says.

And for WiMax to succeed, O’Brien says, significant amounts of institutional investment capital will be needed on a global basis. “We want to try and make it as easy as possible for the large financial institutions to look at, evaluate and make a decision on whether as a commercial proposition it makes sense,” he says. “So a lot of our effort is going to be spent talking to the capital market.”

One of the questions often asked about WiSOA, O’Brien says, is how it differs from the WiMax Forum. “The Forum is setting standards, establishing the technological rules under which WiMax will operate, while we’re at the sharp end of this – we’ve all put money in this and we’ve all got businesses to run, so we’ve all got to get networks built; we’ve got to deal with the practical implications,” he says.

Setting standards, O’Brien says, requires a very different mindset from commercialization.

“We are not engineers,” he says. “We’re technically very savvy, we know this is a great business, but our job is to commercialize WiMax. We don’t want to interfere with the standardization process, and we’re not a certification agency.”

The group’s next meeting will be in December, when reports will be made by three working groups – one on roaming, one on fixed WiMax in emerging markets, and one on specification and joint procurement with vendors. “We’ve got to get the cost of deployment down to a point where it’s cost-effective to deploy much more rapidly than anybody is currently doing it,” O’Brien says.

For roaming in particular, O’Brien says the hope is to agree upon some kind of basic administrative framework by the December meeting. “There’s a great deal of debate within the WiMax industry about how, why, how much, how do you tariff – and what we’ve decided to do is to spend the next two to three months figuring it all out for ourselves from the perspective of operators,” he says.

Another aim by December is to expand the membership of the organization. Among the companies that WiSOA would like to bring into the fold are American leaders like Clearwire and Sprint. “We’re in a fairly substantial conversation with them, and we sincerely hope that we can convince them of the logic of an owners’ group, focusing on the issues that are relevant to owners,” O’Brien says.

Over the long term, WiSOA’s aims are simple. “We want to be a significant catalyst in speeding up the commercial deployment of WiMax,” O’Brien says. “We think collectively that this is an extraordinary technology, this is an extraordinary time, this is an extraordinary business opportunity, and we want to do everything we can to expedite the deployment, and to deal with the issues and hurdles as they come along.”

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