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Tata Nears Mobile WiMax Vendor Picks

Tata Communications Ltd. is weeks away from choosing mobile WiMax infrastructure and customer premises equipment (CPE) vendors for its $500 million wireless broadband network in India.

The operator already claims to have the largest WiMax network in the world with 1,000 base stations deployed, using 802.16d (fixed WiMax) equipment from Telsima Corp. . Tata has signed up 10,000 customers since it launched in March this year. (See Tata Unleashes WiMax in India.)

Now the Indian operator wants 802.16e mobile WiMax infrastructure for its 3.3 GHz wireless broadband network, on which it will spend $500 million during the next two years.

“We have an RFQ in progress to evaluate and select new vendors for an [802.16e] platform,” says Prateek Pashine, VP of planning for retail business at Tata Communications. “In the next three to four weeks, we should have a decision.”

Pashine would not name the shortlisted vendors or indicate the size of potential contracts, other than to say they would be “fairly significant.”

However, according to an industry source, there are seven vendors competing in Tata’s RFQ. They are: Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU); Alvarion Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: ALVR); Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), with Navini Networks Inc. ; Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. ; Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT); Samsung Corp. ; and Telsima. (See Cisco Buys Navini for $330M and Nortel Flunks WiMax.)

Telsima has something of a head start in the RFQ process as it's Tata’s incumbent WiMax supplier, but it faces stiff competition: Alvarion recently won a WiMax contract extension in India with Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL); and Huawei today announced a mobile WiMax contract in Pakistan. (See Bharti Picks Alvarion and Mobilink Does Mobile WiMax.)

Tata’s Pashine says the infrastructure RFQ included specifications for equipment at 3.3 GHz as well as at 2.7 GHz, because Tata also has 18 MHz of spectrum "at the frequency just beyond" 2.7 GHz.

Pashine says Tata will also send out an RFQ this week for mobile WiMax CPE equipment to two or three vendors and that it hopes to finalize that process during the next month. The operator currently uses outdoor CPE supplied by Telsima, but in the new RFQ, the operator is looking for indoor CPE as well.

“As soon as we get confidence in providing good indoor coverage... We will deploy indoor CPE,” he says. “Outdoor CPE is a cost to us, so we want to move to a customer self-install model.”

Reluctant vendors at first
The level of interest in Tata's wireless aspirations from the equipment supplier community has changed a lot during the past two years, according to Pashine.

He says the Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers participating in Tata’s current RFQ for mobile WiMax infrastructure weren't interested in the operator’s initial WiMax plans announced two years ago.

He says Tata could not get vendors committed to making equipment for its 3.3 GHz network because they weren't convinced of Tata’s commitment or the size of the deployment in the country. So the operator seemed destined to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop when it came to mobile WiMax.

“I’ve never seen an operator have to go knock at a vendor’s door and say, ‘Look at me,’” he says. “Two years ago, people just said, ‘Go away... WiMax means 2.5 GHz or 3.5 GHz.’ Today, they are eating out of our hands.”

Prashine claims Tata has the largest and densest city network in the world in Bangalore alone, with 200 base stations deployed there. “That’s given a message to the vendor community,” he says. “The numbers we’re talking about are enough to attract vendors to look seriously and say, ‘I can customize products for the Indian market.’”

In Bangalore, the operator is adding 2,500 to 3,000 customers per month.

This week, Tata is turning on its WiMax network in two new cities, Ghaziabad and Faridabad (near New Delhi). Within the next month, the operator will launch WiMax network services in Hyderabad, Chandigarh, New Delhi, Gurgaon, and Noida.

The operator aims to cover 120 Indian cities for enterprise WiMax services and 12 cities for residential services by March 2009. It already has coverage in 50 cities for business services and three cities for residential services.

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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