Can WiMax do TV?

Northrock Communications is the only provider of WiMax on the island today. Digicel is rolling out WiMax networks in most of their other markets:

December 10th, 2008
by Ken Wieland
One of the themes running through last week’s WiMAX Forum Latin America Congress event was the importance operators attached to bundled packages as a way to gain market share.

VTR Globalcom, the largest cable TV operator in Chile, has managed to gain a creditable 40 percent slice of the country’s bundled services market after less than a decade in operation. It uses an HFC network to deliver voice, cable TV and high-speed internet (at speeds of up to 10Mbps), but it is now looking at WiMAX as a possible way to extend some form of a triple-play service to areas where its HFC network doesn’t reach.

If this could be done successfully, it would be an impressive addition to the WiMAX CV. A main limiting factor, however, is spectrum capacity. Trialling WiMAX at 3.5GHz (2×25MHz) in Chile, the top line internet access speeds VTR can deliver is around 1.2Mbps, which doesn’t leave much room for TV as part of the triple-play package.

Surprisingly perhaps, Gonzalo Dona, strategic technology director at VTR, doesn’t consider this comparatively low WiMAX downlink speed as necessarily a triple-play showstopper. He reckons the quality of SD (standard definition) TV, which chews up around 0.6Mbps, is “good enough”. He may well be right, particularly if the customers targeted by VTR for this service can’t get access to a range of TV channels, and at better visual quality, from another service provider.

And if video compression technology continues to improve sufficiently, WiMAX operators with not too much spectrum to spare may well be able to make a successful go at offering a TV service, but nothing has been proven yet.

Digicel, a pan-Caribbean mobile operator, is another company that sees bundled packages as key in attracting customers, and even positions itself as a ‘wireless media company’. It is already using WiMAX in Jamaica and Grand Cayman to offer fixed and nomadic broadband services to complement its GSM offering, but last month Digicel also became the first mobile operator in Jamaica to win a UHF STV licence. However, Digicel’s preferred way of delivering TV, at least for the time being, is not via WiMAX but through DVB-T (digital video broadcasting—terrestrial) networks, although Magnus Johansson, Digicel’s broadband group director, says he is exploring the business case viability of TV over WiMAX.

Suppliers of WiMAX over TV solutions, not surprisingly, are bullish about the technology. NextWave Wireless, which has developed a MXtv platform (TV over WiMAX) claims that for a WiMAX operator holding just 10MHz of spectrum, the MXtv platform can deliver 20 channels (at up to 30 frames per second) and still leave 60 percent capacity available for basic broadband connectivity services.

This sounds good, but the real test will be proving it in a commercial environment. But when (or if) TV over WiMAX success stories begin to emerge, it will be a significant boost to the technology’s prospects.

Ken Wieland is editor of WiMAX-Vision

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