Industry Insiders: Peter Curnow-Ford, WiMAX Expert

By Gerry Blackwell

May 12, 2009

UK-based WiMAX expert, Peter Curnow-Ford, on the role WiMAX will play in an evolving wireless world, and the very different approach to municipal and publicly-funded wireless in the UK (versus in the U.S.).

Peter Curnow-Ford may never be a household name in the wireless industry, but it’s guys like Curnow-Ford—backroom boys, movers and shakers—who help push the industry forward.

A player in the IT-telecoms space for over 30 years, on both sides of the Atlantic, but mainly in the UK, Curnow-Ford has worked for big guns, such as Nortel Networks, Fujitsu, and Logica (consulting). He launched and ran his own enterprise messaging business. For five years, he worked with 3G-focused dot-coms in the U.S.

Now he gets his kicks helping “early stage” wireless companies. Curnow-Ford is deeply involved—as investor, director, executive, or all three—with four firms, and consults to others.

He’s executive chairman of Bluenowhere, a UK-based wholesale WiMAX operator set to launch commercially in 4Q09. He’s a non-executive director at Plasma Antennas, a maker of beam-forming antennas, originally for the military, but now also for the Wi-Fi/WiMAX industry.

He’s non-executive chairman of Eisar, a company looking to develop technology that will bring the multi-profile, multi-threading functionality of netbooks to the handheld form factor.

And he is a non-executive director at SafetyPay, a U.S.-based company developing solutions that will let mobile workers and merchants accept and securely authenticate credit/debit card payments anywhere.

We talked to Curnow-Ford recently about the companies he’s working with, the role WiMAX will play in an evolving wireless world and the very different approach to municipal and publicly-funded wireless in the UK.

Bluenowhere

Bluenowhere is working on two different WiMAX plays. Later this year, it will launch its 802.16e-based wholesale mobile WiMAX business in selected cities in Britain. (It has been involved in a pilot in Maidstone, Kent since early last year as part of a Mobile WiMAX Acceleration Group initiative.)

In the meantime, it’s developing a new model and infrastructure for a wholesale WiMAX business to support triple-play operators in rural areas offering voice, video, and broadband Internet services. “Whereas in urban areas, it’s 80% mobile and 20% fixed/nomadic,” Curnow-Ford says. “It will be the reverse in rural areas.”

The company plans to deliver at least 8 Mbps to rural homes using WiMAX for the last mile and very high-capacity millimeter-wave wireless technology from suppliers, such as GigaBeam and DragonWave for backhaul to the fiber backbone.

It hopes to find support for this in government initiatives flowing from the Digital Britain report, the preliminary recommendations of a parliamentary committee that include guaranteeing availability of 2-megabits-per-second (Mbps) or faster broadband access to every home and business in the country.

WiMAX will almost inevitably play a role, Curnow-Ford believes. While fiber-to-the-home is the logical choice for high-speed broadband services in much of the country, there will still be 8.9% of the population that for business and technological reasons can never get 2 Mbps over a wire.

“And 40% will never get [wireline] 8-Meg service,” he adds. That’s the minimum needed for a triple-play service. 

The European Union, meanwhile, is mandating funding in the $1.5 billion range for national broadband initiatives, such as Digital Britain. 

WiMAX to the max

Given his involvement with Bluenowhere, it’s no surprise Curnow-Ford is more bullish than many about the future of WiMAX. According to some, the technology is foundering and will be overwhelmed by LTE (Long Term Evolution), the GSM-based mobile broadband technology currently under development.

But as he points out, WiMAX has key advantages, quite aside from its head start over LTE, that should ensure its place in the 4G world.

First and most simply, he says, it’s “a good, flat IP architecture.” “Day one, out of the box, you can deploy WiMAX, users can take a USB dongle, connect to the network and immediately get 100% data access. That’s absolutely critical. And operators can then choose what kinds of applications and services to support—video, data, voice, machine-to-machine communications.”

Second, WiMAX offers unbeatable economics for new operators who would find it difficult or impossible because of the cost of 3G licenses to break into the wireless broadband business using traditional cellular technology.

“WiMAX allows small, medium, and large-scale companies to go out and deploy networks on a local, regional, or national basis,” Curnow-Ford says.

Finally, WiMAX uses an open network approach—no SIM cards, no walled gardens as in the traditional cellular model. “And that means it’s a brilliant tool for content developers and providers, and it’s a superb tool for service providers, enabling them to extend their reach.” Which is, of course, why Bluenowhere is using WiMAX.

WiMAX vs. LTE

Not that LTE won’t have a dominant role in the market for mobile telephony and handheld computing, Curnow-Ford concedes. But the beauty of WiMAX is that while it can compete with 3G and LTE on handhelds, it also connects laptops and netbooks.

This is something 3G claims to be able to do as well, but that it will increasingly only do with limitations, he argues. His mobile carrier, for example, recently started blocking Skype traffic over its 3G network.

And while WiMAX’s strength may be on the PC side, don’t write off its potential for delivering services to handhelds. He points to UQ Communications in Japan and Yota in Russia, both of which are finding innovative ways to mass market WiMAX services. 

But WiMAX’s place is by no means assured, Curnow-Ford hastens to point out. It will require continued aggressive development by key operators such as Yota, UQ and U.S.-based Clearwire. He’s encouraged by what he sees.

He points to Clearwire’s recently announced partnership with an operator in Taiwan, a market too small to be of interest normally. The move, he says, is a canny play to secure Clearwire’s supply of WiMAX customer premise equipment (CPE), most of which is currently made in Taiwan. He also points to Clearwire forging new alliances with cable TV operators in the U.S. as evidence that it’s not letting up.

Muni WiMAX?

In Britain, Curnow-Ford points out, WiMAX is increasingly finding a role in municipal Wi-Fi because of its superior coverage capabilities. “Muni Wi-Fi” usually refers in America to efforts by local government to provide free or low-cost fixed and nomadic broadband wireless as an amenity. The market, for a few reasons, has evolved differently in the UK.

For one thing, 3G and Wi-Fi hotspots are more ubiquitous, so there are fewer gaps in  public broadband wireless availability. Also, EU and UK competition laws prohibit municipal governments building networks and then using them to deliver services in competition with private-sector operators.

There are ways around this. Local governments can be involved in funding networks if they then turn them over to a private sector partner to manage. But more often in Britain, commercial operators are having to build their own networks.

“It’s actually tended to hold back muni Wi-Fi a bit,” Curnow-Ford says. “But where it is happening, it’s done on a more constructive, longer-term basis. The business models coming out of this are ones that will work. And there is much greater cooperation between muni Wi-Fi operators and local authorities.”

This is in part because local governments are obliged by law to show clear-cut return on investment for any initiative in which they invest. So operators and local government have a strong incentive to work together and develop applications that can deliver financial returns and/or demonstrable public good.

Result: muni Wi-Fi in the UK is more about applications, such as connecting mobile municipal workers—allowing highly-paid experts to stay in one place and deliver their expertise to workers in the field, for example—or networking CCTV cameras, or enabling work-at-home programs that reduce traffic and pollution. Broadband access for consumers is an afterthought at best.

“The approach taken here is much more realistic,” Curnow-Ford believes. “And it tends to be much stickier—once [governments] have made investments [in one muni Wi-Fi application], they look for more they can do.”

The great thing about talking to a guy like Curnow-Ford who has so many irons in the fire is that you can get the big picture, but also drill down for as much detail as you want. The not so great thing: the conversation as a result could go on for days, if you didn’t, regrettably, cut it short.

Eisar? SafetyPay? Check out their Web sites. You won’t be bored.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. For more WiMAX-related coverage, read "WiMAX Has a Future in Middle East and Africa."

Originally published on .

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