WiMAX Goes to the Olympics

By Gerry Blackwell

November 17, 2009

Canadian provider, Craig Wireless, is set to launch mobile WiMAX in Vancouver in time for 2010 Winter Olympics

Visitors to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada will be able to connect their WiMAX-enabled laptops to the Internet to check results and stream video of events using a new mobile WiMAX service that Craig Wireless Systems Ltd. is launching in January.

“We have some exciting plans [around the Olympics],” says Craig president Rod Vandenbos. “This will really give us some global exposure and let us take advantage of the fact that the world is coming to Vancouver.”

Global exposure may seem beside the point for a small—50 employees—family-owned company with roots firmly planted in the great white north, but the Vancouver WiMAX launch is the official debut of a reborn Craig with a more global perspective. 

Founded over 60 years ago, Craig was originally a regional broadcaster. In the 1990s, it diversified into wireless cable TV—using MDS or multipoint distribution system technology—and then into broadband wireless access. More recently, Craig has remade itself as a “4G” company with an international footprint.

Even before the coming-out party in Vancouver, the company will launch WiMAX service in Palm Springs, California and most of the rest of the Coachella Valley. It also plans to launch in Manitoba in central Canada, its original home base, and in Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece—all in 2010.

The company has spectrum in Norway and New Zealand, as well. The spectrum is 2.5GHz everywhere except Greece where Craig will be using 3.5GHz.

It will deploy WiMAX 802.16e infrastructure everywhere—supplied by Motorola in the case of the Vancouver network—but in all of the other markets it will start with fixed/nomadic service and work towards the coverage density needed for mobile.

Expanding operations

How did a company from this background end up with such a global patchwork of WiMAX coverage? It wasn’t exactly planned, but wasn’t entirely happenstance either.

The current majority owners, co-CEOs Drew and Boyd Craig, grandsons of the founder, foresaw the 4G future as far back as 15 years ago, Vandenbos says, and began investing in spectrum.

“We’ve really been a spectrum development company for the last several years,” he says. “Like many others we’ve have had to be speculators—acquire the spectrum and then wait for the technology to mature.”

Now that the technology has matured, the company is ready to put its spectrum to work.

Acquiring that spectrum was not so easy for a small company without the resources of a ClearWire or a Sprint, though. The Craigs basically took their spectrum where they could find it, which meant casting the net worldwide. “The brothers are very comfortable operating  internationally,” Vandenbos notes.

The company does still maintain some legacy operations in Canada, but has no interest in or intention of growing those businesses. Craig has been focused almost exclusively on 4G and specifically WiMAX for a few years now, Vandenbos says.

Hot and cold

Having operations on four continents (eventually) and multiple time zones will add to the cost of doing business, but Craig has a strategy in place to partially overcome this disadvantage.

It is building a centralized network operations center in Palm Springs—staffed with “a world-class team of engineers, technicians, and management folks,” Vandenbos says—from which it will be able to monitor and control networks worldwide.

The company chose southern California in part because it would be easier to attract scarce WiMAX talent to the balmy desert—certainly easier than luring them to Winnipeg, Manitoba, one of the chilliest cities on the continent.

Vandenbos notes, only half joking, that while preparations are well in hand for building out the network in Manitoba, “we thought we might wait until after the thaw.”

Craig has done beta testing of WiMAX 16e in all four of the markets where it is committed to launching in 2010. It has been testing longest in Palm Springs—since January 2009—and will launch there first.

The California operation will be a fixed/nomadic service initially, covering about 80% of the valley at launch, including most of the other evocatively named cities—Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Cathedral City, La Quinta, Indio, Desert Hot Springs. Craig expects to have 100% coverage by the middle of 2010.

The company’s strategy in general is to pick low-hanging fruit first, by going after small and medium-sized businesses in underserved areas, offering fixed and nomadic rather than full mobile service. Craig believes there is plenty of pent-up demand for such services, but it’s also a more cost-effective way to build the network

“Part of it comes down to having enough [cell] sites on the ground,” Vandenbos explains. “We feel we have solid coverage for fixed [service in the Coachella Valley], and the goal is to move to mobility as fast as we can. The strategy is to cover larger areas first and then come back and fill in the gaps to provide mobility as that [mobility] becomes more and more of a market driver.”

In Greece, Craig has what Vandenbos describes as “major coverage of Athens and Thessaloniki.” The company is ready to launch there in early 2010, although it has not made any formal announcements yet. It has not formally announced the Coachella Valley launch either.

Vancouver is an exception on a couple of counts. It is the only one of the WiMAX operations to be publicly announced. And part of the Vancouver coverage area—the downtown core and areas around the Olympic venues—will have full mobile service from day one. Outlying areas will get fixed/nomadic service initially.

The company has coverage throughout “the lower mainland,” the large metropolitan area around Vancouver, and it hopes eventually to have coverage of all populated areas of British Columbia. However, the licensing process with the federal regulator, the Canadian Radio-Telecom Commission (CRTC), for this expanded coverage has not been “finalized” yet.

Craig has aspirations to acquire additional spectrum in other markets, but Vandenbos is playing his cards close to the vest. “I can say that we’re actively pursuing opportunities in multiple markets, including other opportunities in North America, and we’re committed to making them happen,” he says.

In the markets where it’s launching in 2010, the company will sell indoor and outdoor receiver units designed for home and business fixed access—products from companies such as Motorola and Green Packet.

You can take it with you

Laptops and other devices with WiMAX network adapters built in or equipped with dongles will work on the Craig networks, but the company will not, initially at least, sell such products.

“We see the market moving quickly to a point where you’re able to buy WiMAX [devices] anywhere,” Vandenbos says. “If 4G is really going to work, it has to be an open environment. That means I can pick up a product that meets my particular needs and connect with it anywhere.”

To that end, Craig is also working on roaming agreements with WiMAX providers, such as Clearwire.

“There are a lot of technical pieces that have to be brought together to make that happen,” Vandenbos cautions. “Be we see a future very soon in which a WiMAX subscriber from anywhere in the world will be able to roam in our markets, and our customers will be able to roam in theirs.”

This is the 4G future users want to—or should want to—hear about. Craig is one of the 4G good guys. The question is, how much impact can a company spread this thin hope to have on how the market unfolds?

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and a frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. He is based in Canada.



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