By Gerry Blackwell
Everybody is excited about the promise of WiMax, for all kinds of different reasons. WiNetworks, a U.S.-based firm with R&D operations in Israel, has a somewhat unusual and highly targeted WiMax strategy. It wants to use the wide area wireless networking standard (AKA 802.16-2004) to help direct broadcast satellite (DBS) operators offer triple-play services – something most cannot do now because their satellite systems are one way only.
WiNetworks has developed patented technology that will let DBS operators leverage their existing assets – mainly the rooftop wiring and set-top boxes they have installed in customers’ homes – and fairly inexpensively add a WiMax network to provide data, VoIP, gaming and video on demand (VOD) services. The DBS system would continue to provide multi-channel pay TV services.
The company has technology trials underway with DBS operators in overseas markets, and has begun shipping equipment for the first commercial deployment somewhere in Europe. That customer will begin operating before the end of the year. The company’s president of U.S. operations, Benjamin Finzi, can’t or won’t provide any more details about WiNetworks’ roll-out plans.
“I can’t comment any further, partly because of confidentiality limitations and partly because of uncertainty,” Finzi admits.
WiNetworks is selling product, but there are still question marks about some of the fundamentals of how the technology will be configured and deployed. For one thing, the current generation of products was built to operate in 3.5 GHz spectrum. “In the U.S., 3.5 is not applicable, so it must be something else,” Finzi says. It’s most likely to be 5.8 GHz – the company’s Web site says it’s working on a 5.8 GHz version of the WiMax infrastructure equipment – but Finzi implies the technology could be adapted for other spectrum bands as well.
It is also not clear how the WiNetworks infrastructure might be used to support VOD, a key application for DBS operators because it will allow them to compete with cable providers that are already offering VOD. Earlier this month at the IBC Exhibition in Amsterdam, the company demonstrated its ability to send streaming broadcast-quality video over WiMax and integrate it with an existing DBS system. But as Finzi explains, streaming video over WiMax is just one way WiNetworks’ solution might be used for VOD, and not the most practical in the short term.
Another way to do it is for the operator to offer not-quite-VOD – in its simplest form, just pay-per-view. Yet another, somewhat intriguing notion, is to exploit the low cost of mass storage and download locked content to a huge hard drive in the customer’s home. A “significant number of movies” could be stored on a disk, Finzi suggests. In both cases, WiMax would be used as an always-on return channel for ordering or unlocking content and authenticating customers.
The uncertainty about how to implement VOD using the WiNetworks solution is partly a spectrum issue. “We are able to deliver VOD content over WiMax,” Finzi says. “What is still to be seen is how much spectrum will be available, particularly in areas where there is a higher density [of users], which is of course where the economics for this are better. Using WiMax for VOD content in the short term is going to be a bit difficult from the spectrum availability standpoint.”
However it handles VOD, the WiNetworks solution will provide tight integration with both DBS customer premises equipment and back-end accounting and authentication systems. “We provide the maximum level of integration so that the customer sees it as one system,” Finzi says.
The WiNetworks technology has several components, including indoor and outdoor antenna/receiver units, indoor service gateways and rack-mountable base station units. It was all designed to make deploying a WiMax network for triple-play services an economically feasible proposition for DBS operators. The company achieved this in part by developing patented technology that allows it to send WiMax traffic down the existing cable running from the DBS antenna on the homeowner’s roof to the satellite set-top box inside. The WiNetworks service gateway then splits out traffic destined for different devices in the home – computers, phones, game units, set-top boxes.
“DBS operators can dramatically reduce their deployment cost by leveraging their existing asset base,” Finzi says. “And if you look at the infrastructure in the home, that is actually the major share of their asset base. In the U.S., there are 25 million DBS customers. If you figure the cost of equipment at $1,000 per customer, that’s $25 billion in assets. That’s clearly where the leveraging should occur.”
The other way WiNetworks makes it economically feasible is by reducing the need for and cost of WiMax infrastructure. Finzi claims the outside antenna unit and gateway together will cost no more than the outside equipment in a cable TV triple-play installation – “an outdoor solution for the price of an indoor solution” is how he puts it. And having antennas on rooftops rather than inside increases base station range, reducing the number of base stations required.
WiNetworks is also using a mesh network topology to further reduce base station requirements and installation costs. The operator can install outside units on some rooftops and use them as mesh points to serve surrounding homes – which then only need indoor, consumer-installable antennas. This will reduce installation costs because the operator won’t have to send out an installer for those customers.
“All of these different things – and we have other tricks, like antennas that automatically find the best signal – are all around ensuring that the cost of installation is minimal, while the need for infrastructure is reduced,” Finzi says.
The other big advantage to the mesh architecture is that WiNetworks networks will be “mobile-ready” when the forward-compatible 802.16e standard makes possible seamless hand-offs from cell to cell. DBS operators will then be able to offer mobile as well as fixed-line VoIP and high-speed Internet services. The mesh technology will give the network the density of coverage required for such services. In standard WiMax network implementations, the operator would have to incur additional capital costs to install more base stations.
Finzi is evasive about the investment DBS operators will have to make to implement the WiNetworks solution. If all the DBS operators deployed the technology – and the market universe is small; fewer than 50 operators worldwide is Finzi’s estimate – the investment would run into the billions of dollars, he says. The operators who have looked at the solution believe the return on investment is “attractive overall,” he claims. “What is very obvious is that the payback from deploying WiMax on its own is much less attractive.”
WiNetworks is already working with major suppliers of accounting and authentication systems used by DBS operators with a view to integrating those functions. And it will work with VoIP partners – or whichever VoIP partner the operator selects – when the time comes. “The operator will of course sit in the driving seat when putting together the triple-play solution,” Finzi says.
Can the WiNetworks solution work in other sectors? It will provide the same benefits to any broadcast operator that currently has a one-way network. Other types of service providers could use the solution but would not get much more benefit than they would with a standard WiMax installation, Finzi implies.
One interesting notion: he suggests that other types of operators could use WiNetworks technology and piggyback on a DBS operator’s customer premises infrastructure – “as long as the wire [from the DBS antenna to the set-top box] is owned by the homeowner, which is the most likely situation.” If nothing else, it’s an interesting threat to hang over the heads of DBS operators.