Pipex Wireless has revealed plans for a leisurely UK roll-out of its WiMax service, under the name Freedom4 - and spelt out its hopes that Ofcom will allow it to go mobile in 2008.
"It's not going to be 'build it and they will come'" said Freedom4 chief executive Mike Read, announcing plans somewhat more cautious than the $3 billion US-based Sprint and Clearwire network, which plans to offer its Xohm service to 100 million people by the end of 2008.
By contrast, Pipex' (now Freedom4's) plans are much more cautious. Freedom4 did not announce any launch date or pricing for its Manchester service, which will "certainly be available by the end of this year," said Read. The company showed a map with patches of coverage phase 2 and phase 3 (which includes London) but wouldn't even suggest possible dates.
Pipex had £25 million from Intel in 2006 to start building a WiMax network, and has trial networks in Milton Keynes and Warwick.
"We wanted to make sure our network was ready," said Read. The other phases will depend on the success of Manchester, he said.
Freedom4's service will be based around fixed WiMax, received through indoor antennas, and will be a symmetric service aimed primarily at smaller businesses, and branch offices of enterprises, as an alternative or a supplement to wired services such as SDSL. It does expect to pick up some "pro-sumer" customers who want to play games fast, but the price will be set so that 60 to 80 customers would pay for a base station.
"We aren't aiming for consumers." said Read, "The industry would drive the price down to free."
The network equipment (from Airspan and Nokia Siemens) can be upgraded to mobile WiMax, said Read. Freedom4 will be applying to Ofcom for a variation to its licence, which currently only allows fixed wireless access, he added.
Next year mobile WiMax devices will be available, including Nokia's N800 tablet, and USB dongles from Airspan under the brand name MiMax. Later in the year, Intel will build WiMax into its Centrino specification and WiMax laptops will be available.
At this point, users could benefit from the international standards behind WiMax, pointed out Read, as a business agreement could allow Freedom4 users to roam onto the Sprint network in the US.
Is Freedom4 serious?
Although Read is emphatic that the Freedom4 is serious about its service, another interpretation of its tentative steps could be that the company is maximising its value as it heads for acquisition. The company reportedly rejected a £450 million bid from BT in February, and in July, Pipex Wireless was under review, following the salve of Pipex' consumer DLS division.
Freedom4 certainly has assets - and if WiMax looks like being a success, they will certainly appreciate in value. Pipex holds 84MHz of spectrum, at about 3.6GHz. It also has spectrum suitable for point-to-point links, which could be used for backhaul: 220MHz around 28GHz.
Graham Currier, Freedom4's business development director, told the press that this is bigger than slice of WiMax that the 2.6GHz auction next year could produce. Ofcom has 190MHz to auction, but current plans, restricted by guidance from the European regulator, CEPT, suggest only 50MHz will be "unpaired". The rest will be "paired", ie designed for use by 3G systems which send and receive on different frequencies.
In fact, this proportion, set out by the European regulator CEPT, can be changed if there is a higher demand for unpaired WiMax spectrum, Ofcom points out.
Nevertheless, Freedom4 is well aware that its value will increase if there is demand for WiMax bandwidth. "The auction will validate what we are doing, and tell us how much we are worth," said Read.
What's in a name?
The Freedom4 name came about because "it's very difficult to find a good name and I wanted a dotcom URL", said Read. "Pipex sells sell one in five of the domains sold in the UK, and we could not find a good one, so we had to make up a name."
The 4 is a reference to WiMax' status as a putative "4th generation" wireless technology, and the whole name will lend itself to marketing like "Freedom4Manchester" (and probably Freedom4Tooting). The current WiMax modem also has four antennas, said Read.