News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Aptilo Networks positive about prospects for WiMAX in developing countries

Johan Terve, Aptilo Networks:
good opportunities for WiMAX in emerging markets

DevelopingTelecomsWatch was a proud media partner of this year's iteration of the annual Africa Com conference and exhibition held in Cape Town. The event concluded on Thursday this week, wrapping up two days of discussions and networking among the continent's telecoms operators and their business partners from the vendor and systems integrator communities.

One theme explored in some detail at the conference - via a special breakout session - was the question of to what extent WiMAX is gaining traction in Africa.

With this in mind, DTW spoke this week with Johan Terve, VP Marketing at Aptilo Networks, a supplier of pre-integrated management solutions for control of billing, user services and access in WiMAX and Wi-Fi networks. Aptilo Networks had a presence at Africa Com so we were keen to get a sense of whether this was indicative of an upbeat view of the scale of the WiMAX opportunity in Africa - and across developing countries and emerging markets more generally.

For proponents of WiMAX, the emerging markets opportunity may grow in importance - certainly if we are to believe bleak analyses of the technology's ongoing prospects in more developed economies. One such comes from Terry Norman of consulting and research firm Analysys Mason, who in August predicted a difficult time ahead for equipment makers.

Norman believes that "over the last two or three years, WiMAX has gained a strong foothold in developing countries in which there is a need for broadband, but the fixed infrastructure is poor." He feels, however, that these markets offer insufficient growth potential and size "to sustain continued investment from such heavyweights as Cisco Systems, Intel and Motorola without additional sales in the developed markets". Therein lies a problem, argues Norman, because "in the developed markets of Europe and the USA, we see some early signs of a difficult future for WiMAX."

One difficulty could be any reluctance on the part of of leading mobile operators to deploy the technology. Terry Norman writes that in developed European markets, operators are almost certainly upgrading their 3G technologies to 4G LTE in order to match the rising demand for data. Norman draws a connection between leading no leading MNOs hinting that they might adopt WiMAX and the idea that "LTE is imminent."

Johan Terve rejects the notion of that it being "too late" for WiMAX in developed markets. Terve feels that such language would suggest that "this is a race with a single winner". He believes the opposite to be true and that both WiMAX and LTE will co-exist just like xDSL and fiber do in the wired broadband world.

While Terry Norman of Analysys Mason was downbeat about the growth prospects for WiMAX in Europe and US but sounding somewhat positive about the case for the technology in emerging markets, some analysts are more cautious even about the latter opportunity.

A Cellular News article published last month asks whether there really is a big market for WiMAX in the developing countries. The article is built around opinions recently expressed by industry watchers Ovum, who find "that the confluence of several factors including technology cost, coverage, vendor support and service provider choices will limit WiMAX to only a niche technology in the emerging markets, forming part of established fixed and mobile operators' broader broadband access portfolios."

Johan Terve responded to this point by saying that "if they mean that WiMAX technology will be niche based on size, then there is an element of truth in that since in the end LTE will be bigger because of its massive support amongst mobile operators" and because "the industry expects LTE to be a replacement technology for 2G/3G mobile phones as well."

"The WiMAX market does not have the ambition to be a new mobile phone system", argues Terve. "In terms of pure mobile data technologies for portable laptops and mobile Internet devices," he continues, "the two markets will be more equal, and for the 'Wireless DSL' or CPE market WiMAX will probably be larger".

Last month's Cellular News article, however, contends that most emerging markets WiMAX operators currently have thousands, or tens of thousands of subscribers, rather than the hundreds of thousands of subscribers that they planned to have at this stage. DTW asked Johan Terve to what degree he is concerned by these modest numbers.

"We in the vendor community are always far more optimistic in growth projections than the reality," he answered. "The projections of rolled-out LTE networks and subscribers will most likely have to be revised down in the coming quarters. However, there is a big difference between LTE and WiMAX in that the tier 1 mobile operators already have a huge subscriber base just waiting for more bandwidth [and] disappointed with what the current 3G networks have been able to deliver. This will make the LTE ramp-up quicker than it has been for WiMAX having to deploy from scratch. Essentially all larger WiMAX operators are new to market, including Clearwire, PacketOne, Yota and UQ. None of them have the luxury of just adding WiMAX technology to existing cell towers. Are we concerned about WiMAX? No, we are seeing signs now within our customer and prospects base that things are really starting to move. One encouraging factor is, for instance, one of the largest operators in India that is currently deploying Aptilo’s solution. This type of operator tends to scale very quickly in terms of subscriber growth. As a company, we are continuing our multi-wireless support (currently Wi-Fi and WiMAX) and have added LTE to our roadmap to be able to cater to all the help operators need in managing their mobile data traffic."

Where, then, does Aptilo networks see some of the richest opportunities in Africa and in emerging markets more generally?

"We see the greatest opportunities with existing Internet Service Providers and new greenfield challengers in the first phase," says Johan Terve. "We also see a great opportunity with CDMA mobile operators that have hesitated to deploy EV-DO for broadband data services. Their strategy is to keep developing their voice offering in CDMA and then choose between LTE and WiMAX for data. For them LTE is a heavier fork-lift than for 3G operators and WiMAX has the benefit that it is here now, ready to deploy."

Could Terve point to any specific examples of this particular deployment scenario?

"We are currently working with one of our Caribbean CDMA mobile operator customers that will continue with their CDMA for voice and build their data broadband on WiMAX," he responded.

Aptilo Networks, then, is among those continuing to make positive noises about the value WiMAX may be able to add to the communications landscape of emerging markets and developing countries worldwide. It is likely this theme will be revisited when DTW reports on next year's Africa Com event, and it will be interesting to see how far this view has proven to be accurate by that time.

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