New wireless service slips past local loop

UK wireless broadband start-up Libera has switched on its business-oriented wireless broadband network, and plans to roll out across the country next year using standards-based WiMax technology. It will use an unlicensed band, a departure from earlier plan to use licensed spectrum.

The start-up - not to be confused with Spanish wireless broadband company Libera Networks - last summer announced its plans to reach 75 percent of UK businesses with a combination of licensed 28GHz spectrum and unlicensed services. The company is now planning to use the unlicensed 5.8GHz band for its entire network, and is backing WiMax, based on the IEEE's recently approved 802.16d wireless broadband standard, Libera founder and chief executive Robert Condon told Techworld.

Most of Bristol is now covered, and the company has several trial customers connected to the service, Condon said. The next site to be switched on will be west London - several square kilometres around Marble Arch - followed by other cities and towns in the south of England. Libera wants to cover the top 50 UK cities within the next 12 months, but admits this will depend on the outcome of a major funding round to take place next month.

Libera trialled with several equipment suppliers, but in the end chose to go with Aperto Networks, which it says is best suited for the 5.8GHz band. As the spectrum doesn't require a licence, it's crucial to be able to reduce interference, and Aperto's equipment has the best interference-management techniques, Condon said.

Aperto is one of the most enthusiastic backers of WiMax, based on the recently ratified IEEE 802.16d standard, and Condon said the company's current gear will be able to easily upgrade to standards-compliance - an assertion some industry analysts would find dubious. "To the customer it will be imperceptible," he said. He said the introduction of WiMax-approved equipment, probably next August, should mean a huge reduction in the cost of customer and network equipment as well as an increase in base station capacity.

Such advantages haven't swayed PCCW, whose UK Broadband subsidiary recently revealed it is putting its weight behind a proprietary cellular broadband system. UK Broadband pointed out that WiMax or pre-WiMax systems like Libera's require engineers to install and align a customer antenna. And unlike cellular systems, WiMax won't offer mobility for some time yet, UK Broadband said.

Condon responded that systems such as the 3.4GHz IP Wireless kit used by UK Broadband aren't yet able to offer the quality of service needed by businesses. "I don't believe any of those technologies are yet ready for deployment," he said. "They've got a lot of work to do getting quality of service issues resolved. They will do it, but it will take time." Libera is testing a system called Apollo that automatically aligns itself, eliminating the need for an engineer visit, Condon said.

Mobility isn't a current priority, and in the meantime he said Libera's costs for deployment are about a tenth those of UK Broadband. In any case, he doesn't see the company as a competitor, since UK Broadband is targeting residential and small business customers. "There's a clear dichotomy here between the residential/mobility market and the business, carrier-class market. If anything we complement each other," Condon argued.

The company sees itself as the first real alternative to BT's local loop, and is primarily targeting companies that already have broadband but want faster, more reliable services without having to pay through the nose for fibre. Libera is offering voice services as well as data, including a hosted PBX, citing an Analysys projection that there will be a £350 million market for voice on IP in the UK by 2008.

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