Thursday, April 03, 2008

Opel Coverage: Why is WiMAX Obsolete?

A day after the news story broke, there isn't much to add to the facts themselves: the Australian government cancelled the contract for the Opel (Optus / Elders) consortium to build a broadband network combining ADSL2+ and WiMAX; the Opel partners are upset; the opposition is outraged; and Telstra is gloating; and so on.
The decision to unplug the Opel contract received plenty of media attention, as you might expect. And, as might also be expected, the mainstream media has managed some bloopers in its coverage of the affair. I thought I'd pick out a few highlights.
From Malcolm Maiden of Fairfax: “The technology Opel was relying on was also questionable, because it relied, in part, on outdated WiMAX fixed wireless microwave signal propagation...”
WiMAX outdated? Nonsense: there is legitimate debate about whether the technology is the best one for a particular application, but that has nothing to do with the alleged obsolescence of WiMAX. WiMAX is, for all its faults, a current and ongoing technology development.
I don't mean to take the stick to Fairfax, but its commentators seem to be hunting in a pack on the question of WiMAX obsolescence: Jesse Hogan of The Age also pursued this line: “The problem was that Coonan wanted to use an obsolete fixed (non-portable) version of WiMAX instead of the newer mobile version...”
Hogan simply doesn't fully understand the technology. Yes, mobile WiMAX is a newer standard than fixed WiMAX. But that doesn't mean the requirement for fixed wireless applications will disappear. Again, we have a confusion between two questions: “Does the world have a use for fixed wireless broadband data services?”, which anyone familiar with this industry would answer “Yes”; and “Is fixed WiMAX the best technology for fixed wireless broadband data services?” for which the answer is “Some people say yes, others say no”.
Elizabeth Knight, also of Fairfax, had the good sense to stay away from technology commentary, but couldn't resist repeating the government's line about network duplication: “The risk of overlap is real ... remember the Telstra and Optus overbuild of cable in metropolitan areas. It was a multibillion dollar commercial gaffe.”
I agree that it would be silly for the government to fund two networks, and I also agree that the way HFC was rolled out was a disaster. But neither of these make a general rule about infrastructure duplication. Mobile networks are duplicated, yet they're a commercial success – and as we see in most telecommunication markets, infrastructure duplication (another word is “competition”) drives prices downwards, which is why it's cheaper to buy a data link from Sydney to Melbourne than from Brisbane to Cloncurry.
If “WiMAX obsolescence” is the pack-line from Fairfax, News Limited's favourite line is that Optus is a “lazy competitor”: this came from both John Durie and Terry McCrann. The Australian, however, has had the good sense to stay away from the WiMAX technology debate!

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