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BT Dances Wireless Jig

Incumbent wireline operator BT Group plc (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA) is to roll out a commercial wireless broadband network in Northern Ireland “this summer” using kit from Israeli vendor Alvarion Ltd. (Nasdaq: ALVR), Unstrung can exclusively reveal.

The move follows the success of four trials earlier this year -- in Ballingry, Scotland; Pwllheli, Wales; Porthleven, England; and Campsie in Northern Ireland -- aimed at providing three months of wireless broadband access to 105 users in rural locations throughout the U.K.

“The trials have been very successful, and we will be launching a service on the back of them this summer,” says Ian Robinson, head of emerging markets at BT Retail. “We were successful in winning a large bid for Northern Ireland where the local government is looking for 100 percent broadband coverage. We will be achieving this with a combination of ADSL and our [wireless] product called radio broadband.”

Robinson states that its “radio broadband” service is based on Alvarion fixed wireless equipment and will potentially serve “several thousand” customers. “The rollout is for the whole of Northern Ireland... We will open up all the exchanges and use radio broadband as an infill [to those areas not served by fixed ADSL services]. We are very well advanced with our implementation plans.”

Alvarion could not be reached for comment by press time. The deal marks the vendor’s second Irish win (see Irish Broadband Loves Alvarion).

Robinson claims that the carrier is eager to extend the rural wireless service in an effort to reach its stated goal of “100 percent broadband coverage for every U.K. community by 2005,” but is dependent on subsidies from local government agencies.

“We want to take this further and are working on a number of other regional and local bids where there is a drive from local governments to deliver broadband in their area... The issue is that it costs more to serve the most rural places. If you are going to make the price the same for everyone, how do you cover that gap in cost? The answer at the moment is that someone else has to pay.”

Despite the recent hype surrounding the emergence of WiMax technology, BT is keen to stress that its Irish win should not be directly associated with the fixed wireless standard, at least until it is officially ratified (see Cisco Late to WiMax Party, WiMax Gets Serious, and A Conflicted MAN?).

“It isn’t WiMax,” states Robinson. “We have a proprietary solution with many of the capabilities you would expect to see from WiMax... Clearly we will migrate from our proprietary solution to a standards-based solution as soon as we can... The two main standards we are focused on are 802.16d -- the one we will migrate radio broadband to once it is ratified -- and 802.16e, which has mobility enhancements as a software upgrade.”

Supporters of the WiMax spec -- which is intended to provide high-speed wireless data services over distances of 30 miles or so -- love to talk up the spec. Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) is pushing it as a cable/DSL replacement, especially in areas that are difficult to wire up, while others envisage the technology as replacing everything from wireless LAN to third-generation cellular systems (see Intel's WiMax Drive and Intel's Got WiMax Headroom).

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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