Ofcom spectrum auction to spark UK mobile WiMax scramble

Nortel Networks and two UK companies will test mobile WiMax, a wireless data transfer technology that will compete with Wi-Fi and 3G (third-generation) networks.


Nortel Networks and two UK companies will test mobile WiMax, a wireless data transfer technology that will compete with Wi-Fi and 3G (third-generation) networks.

Nortel is partnering with Urban WiMax, a company that already provides fixed WiMax service in the UK, as well as Macropolitan, which manages sites where operators place network equipment, the companies said Monday.

On Friday, the companies held a video conference between the UK., Canada and the US. using laptops equipped with PC cards that use mobile WiMax signals, said Sasha Williamson, CEO of Urban WiMax.

Other trials in the U.K. will follow to get feedback from end users on issues such as pricing and overall experience with the technology, he said.

The test comes ahead of an upcoming auction of spectrum by the Office of Communications, the British communications industry regulator. The spectrum could be used for mobile WiMax, as well as other wireless technologies.

The frequencies, from 2.5GHz to 2.69GHz, will be auctioned in early 2008, an Ofcom spokesman said Monday. Ofcom is restricting how the spectrum can be used, as the agency believes leaving it open is better for the economy and consumers, the spokesman said.

Mobile WiMax is based on the IEEE 802.16e standard and offers multiple megabits of data transferred per second over a broader range than Wi-Fi. Mobile WiMax companies are calling the technology "4G," or fourth generation, but it's a misnomer since no 4G standard has been agreed on yet, said Julien Grivolas, a senior analyst with Ovum.

In the US, Sprint Nextel Corp. said last autumn it would invest US$3 billion on a mobile WiMax network, which it claims will be even faster than its own 3G network. Sprint Nextel said it would work with Samsung Electronics, Motorola and Nokia Siemens Networks on building the network infrastructure.

That left out Nortel, a major infrastructure supplier, that said recently it was investing $100 million in mobile WiMax research. The UK trial is an effort by Nortel to "give the impression that they're ready to go to market before the spectrum auction takes place," said Philip Solis, principal analyst with ABI Research.

It's expected that BT Group and Vodafone Group, as well as wireless Internet service providers, will be among those interested in buying licenses for part of the spectrum, Solis said.

The US and South Korea are expected to be the first markets to see a wide build-out of WiMax infrastructure, Solis said, followed by developed markets such as the U.K.

Both analysts said the first mobile WiMax products to hit the market will be modems and PC cards as soon as the end of this year. No mobile phones or handheld devices that can use mobile WiMax signals are on the market now, but by the end of 2008, devices such as smartphones, MP3 players and digital cameras will appear, they said.

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