India Connects To Wireless Internet

WiMax may be the country's high road to broadband connectivity


High-speed Internet connectivity still is an elusive luxury for most Indians: with just over a million broadband subscribers in a country of more than one billion people, only the best off in the big cities can take advantage of it. But WiMax, the IEEE standard for wide area wireless broadband connectivity, could be coming to the rescue. It offers India the prospect of largely skipping connection to the Internet by the DSL links and cable modems that are standard in so many other places.

”WiMax offers the best an­swer to last-mile broadband connectivity in a country like India,” says Arogyaswami Paulraj, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University, in California.

A number of recent developments suggest that Paulraj may be right—or at least that a lot of corporate leaders are thinking the same way. For example, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (VSNL), a leading international telecom service provider headquartered in Mumbai, already has deployed WiMax infrastructure in 65 Indian cities, relying on equipment made by Aperto Networks, in Milpitas, Calif. Aperto is a leading developer of WiMax base stations and subscriber units built to the IEEE 802.16d standard.

Motorola, headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., has begun delivery of a wireless broadband system it calls Canopy in India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan. Motorola says that Canopy users ”will be able to enjoy WiMax benefits in the unlicensed frequency band [above 5 gigahertz] once [the system] becomes available.”

And Intel’s chief executive, Paul Otellini, made clear during a visit to Bangalore on 23 May that delivery of low-cost WiMax-enabling devices to ­consumers is a priority for the company in India.

So far, India’s vendors and carriers have been trying to lure customers with cut-rate service packages, offers of low-cost personal computers, and—above all—efforts to bring down the prices of the wireless modems and routers needed to receive and distribute WiMax signals. ”The challenge is to devise a cost-effective solution that delivers adequate bandwidth capabilities,” comments Shashi Kalathil, president of broadband and retail business at VSNL. ”Of course, mobility would be a significant added advantage,” he says.

Others are imagining the same kind of broadband future for India. Paris-based Alcatel, having announced it will roll out WiMax services throughout India by the end of this year, has also initiated development of mobile WiMax products. Last September, with the Delhi-based Center for Development of Telematics (C-DoT), Alcatel set up a research center in Chennai, where the two partners will design and develop products that will conform to the IEEE 802.16e mobile WiMax standard.

Besides the association with C-DoT, Alcatel has a prior alliance with Intel, for development and delivery of WiMax equipment. These pacts might give Alcatel an edge in a market in which it hopes to be serving 20 million to 40 million users within five years.

Smaller firms are also in the race. Beceem Communi­ca­tions, cofounded by Stanford’s Paulraj, has been a key contributor to the IEEE 802.16e standard. Beseem, head­quartered in Santa Clara, Calif., and backed by companies like NTT DoCoMo, Samsung, and Intel, is developing its IEEE 802.16e chip sets mainly in Bangalore.

Paulraj believes that India may be getting a jump on the rest of the world in devising WiMax equipment and developing markets for it.

But Indian regulators don’t seem to quite get it. They have been slow to allocate spectrum for WiMax, damping the technology’s prospects. Globally, bands centered at 2.5 GHz and 3.5 GHz have been approved for WiMax, but India’s 3.5-GHz band is locked up in defense and space sectors. Some bands in 2.5 GHz have been earmarked for third-­generation cellphones, but they remain unused. While there are sufficient free bands at 2.5 GHz, which could be allocated for WiMax, the telecom regulators are dragging their feet.

”All this is hurting the operators,” says Sridhar Pai, founder of a telecom market research firm, Tonse Telecom, in Bangalore. ”It appears Indian frequency regulators are out of sync with global trends.” While most equipment makers are waiting for telecom policy to be clarified, vendors like Alcatel are pushing for a subgigahertz band. ”We will target the 700â''­megahertz band, which would be a special India [WiMax] profile, likely to be ratified by the WiMax Forum,” says an Alcatel spokesperson.

The WiMax Forum, based in Beaverton, Ore., is a consortium of WiMax equipment and service providers. Its India liaison, Sunil Kumar, says it has started communicating with the Indian regulators directly, to apprise them of global trends and official WiMax positions.

Notwithstanding the uncertainties, technology developers feel India can contribute significantly to future versions of wireless broadband technology. ”If we can engineer wireless infrastructure—both Wi-Fi and WiMax—to substantially aug­ment capacity for handling Voice over Internet Protocol, so that operators make money on data services and offer voice calls for free, then we’d have found the killer application for this technology,” says Professor K.V.S. Hari of the Indian Institute of Science, in Bangalore, a coauthor of the IEEE 802.16e standard.