WiMAX & the Spectrum Wars.
Now that the submarine fibre-optic cables SEACOM & TEAMS have arrived on Kenya’s shores the focus has shifted to terrestrial networks and infrastructure that will finally deliver last mile broadband to the bandwidth hungry African consumers. To do this various technologies are being implemented. One of the technologies that offers great promise is WiMAX.
What is WiMAX?
WiMAX is an acronym that comes from the initials of Worldwide interoperability for Microwave Access. WiMAX is an IP based telecommunications technology that provides wireless transmission of data using a variety of transmission modes from fixed point to multi point links to portable to fully mobile internet access.
At its heart, however, WiMAX is a standards initiative. Its purpose is to ensure that the broadband wireless radios manufactured for customer use interoperate from vendor to vendor. The primary advantages of the WiMAX standard are to enable the adoption of advanced radio features in a uniform fashion and reduce costs for all of the radios made by companies, who are part of the WiMAX Forum™ – a standards body formed to ensure interoperability via testing.
WiMAX is divided into two standards known as fixed WiMAX & mobile WiMAX. They have their technical names known as
802.16 – 2004 is often called 802.16d, since that was the working party that developed the standard. It is also frequently referred to as “fixed WiMAX” since it has no support for mobility.
802.16e – 2005 is an amendment to 802.16 – 2004 and is often referred to in shortened form as 802.16e. It introduced support for mobility, amongst other things and is therefore also known as “mobile WiMAX”.
Will WiMAX be a Global Standard?
Yes. WiMAX is a Global Standard that has certified products shipping worldwide and interoperate with gear in the same frequency range and power range. It is important to note that different countries utilize different spectrum frequencies for broadband delivery. For instance, the licensed band 2.5 GHz range in the US is also widely used around the world. However, the widely used international broadband spectrum range in the 3.5 GHz channels is not available in the US, although the FCC has recently opened a small slice of lightly regulated spectrum in the US at 3.65 GHz that uses the same WiMAX radios. The early waves of WiMAX products are not intended to function in multiple WiMAX spectrum ranges simultaneously. However, some of the early WiMAX radio sets may incorporate WiMAX/GSM or Wi-Fi dual connectivity from the beginning as several vendors appear to be engineering this capability into some Mobile WiMAX radios. A dual WiMAX/GSM handset is already on the market in Russia.
Uses of WiMAX.
The greatest advantage of WiMAX in Africa and especially in Kenya’s case is the fact that WiMAX could make broadband internet access ubiquitous at a much lower cost in terms of infrastructure rollout. Some of you may have heard of the almost mad rush to lay fibre-optic cables in Kenya. It is said that Kenyan firms have already laid approximately 20,000km of cable in Kenya. KDN, Access Kenya, Jamii, UUNET, Telkom Kenya and the govt NOFBI/FONN are busy digging up Kenya to lay fibre-optic cables. Now the greatest cost of laying fibre is in the rural areas where the population is widely distributed and taking fibre to each home would be practically impossible in a geographically huge Kenya.
So it follows that to deliver the last mile broadband access in a country already in love with cellular telephony it would be better and cheaper to roll out WiMAX technology. However, though this is the preferred option another problem is being encountered allthough a ready solution is also in the offing. That problem is spectrum availability.
The Spectrum Wars.
WiMAX is a wireless standard of transmitting data. To do so it requires a frequency to operate in. Unlike WiFi which relies on unlicensed spectrum WiMAX requires a specific frequency. To begin with lets first define some terms.
What is Spectrum?
A spectrum is a condition or value that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary infinitely within a continuum. In physics spectrum is divided into:
- Electromagnetic Spectrum
- Energy Spectrum
- Frequency Spectrum
For this article we shall mainly concern ourselves with Frequency spectrum. Frequency spectrum may be defined as a plot of the distribution of the intensity of some type of electromagnetic or acoustic radiation as a function of frequency.
(systems engineering) In the analysis of a random function of time, such as the amplitude of noise in a system, the limit as T approaches infinity of 1/(2πT) times the ensemble average of the squared magnitude of the amplitude of the Fourier transform of the function from -T to T. Also known as power-density spectrum; power spectrum; spectral density.
In Kenya the body charged with spectrum allocation is the Communications Commission of Kenya [CCK]. Frequencies are a scarce national resource. Each country is awarded a number of frequencies by the ITU [International Telecommunications Union]. The country then has to allocate the issued frequencies to all the sectors of it’s economy that need them. To do so it must balance frequency allocation to it’s security agencies, financial services, radio & TV broadcasting, maritime & air travel, mobile & fixed telecommunications network and a host of other users of frequency. It follows therefore that frequencies are some of the most valuable assets of some stakeholders. With such valuable commodities there is fierce competition to acquire them hence the battle for frequencies that I have termed Spectrum Wars.
For WiMAX to work it requires a frequency. So what are the RF [Radio Frequency] frequencies needed to operate WiMAX? The most recent versions of both WiMAX standards in 802.16 cover spectrum ranges from at least the 2 GHz range through the 66 GHz range. This is an enormous spectrum range.
Digital TV Transition & White Spaces
On 12 June 2009 the United States officially switched to full digital TV broadcasting, but before you start praising the USA and condemning African inefficiency it is important to remember that the USA was not the first country to effect this change. The first country to switch to full over the air digital broadcasting was Luxembourg in 2006 followed the same year by the Netherlands. Then Sweden, Finland, Norway, Andorra & Switzerland followed in 2007 and Belgium & Germany followed in 2008. So why is this important in terms of WiMAX?
Television today uses quite alot of frequency spectrum. Before TV used analogue spectrum which was very inefficient use of spectrum. With the switch to digital all analogue spectrum is now free and can be used for technologies such as WiMAX. In the area of TV there is another phenomenon known as White Spaces.
In telecommunications white spaces refer to frequencies allocated to a broadcasting service but not used locally. In the United States, it has gained prominence after the FCC ruled that unlicensed devices that can guarantee that they will not interfere with assigned broadcasts can use the empty white spaces in spectrum.
The benefits of migrating from analogue to digital terrestrial broadcasting include: additional services, higher video and audio quality HD [High Definition], greater spectrum efficiency; and more programme channels in one frequency. Consumers will have more choices of enhanced broadcasting applications, multimedia data and entertainment services. In addition, competition is expected to increase due to new entrants in the broadcasting market.
This is a potential game changing event because it frees up more frequency spectrum which allows telecomms providers to provide cheaper services to the rest of us and therefore revolutionize life as we know it in countries such as Kenya and much of Africa. To end on a positive note Kenya is well on the way to switching to digital broadcasting by 1 July 2012 which will be well before China and at the same time with the United Kingdom. Nevertheless Kenya should seek to emulate Mauritius which was the first country in the world to be fully covered by WiMAX. Africa, Kenya Yes We Can.
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