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Tata Unleashes WiMax in India

Tata Communications Ltd. launched today what it claims is the largest WiMax network deployed in the world, signaling the arrival of the much anticipated WiMax "big bang" in the country. (See Tata Unveils WiMax Plans.)

The Indian operator, which plans to splash out between $500 million and $600 million on the wireless broadband technology between now and 2010, has rolled out a fixed WiMax network at 3.3 GHz in 10 Indian cities, including Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai. The network already serves more than 5,000 enterprise and residential customers. (See VSNL Pump$ Up WiMax Plan$.)

With a population of 1.2 billion people and just 3.1 million broadband subscribers, India is in desperate need of broadband connectivity. And with the absence of 3G cellular data services in the country, WiMax presents the opportunity to improve broadband penetration. (See India Looks to WiMax for Broadband and India on Edge Over 3G.)

"India is a very under-penetrated market for broadband. All of the [broadband connections] are wired... underground or aerial cables, which are prone to failures. They get cut or stolen," says Shankar Prasad, president of Tata's retail business. "Wireless is the way to go in India."

Tata has deployed 2,000 base station sectors from Telsima Corp. , which is equivalent to 500 base stations as each base station has four sectors. Of those base stations, 150 have been deployed in Bangalore to serve residential customers. The operator is ready to roll out another 250 WiMax base stations.

By the end of this year, Tata aims to offer business broadband services in 110 Indian cities and retail services in 15 cities. Tata targets 200,000 retail customers by March 2009, but does not provide its business customer targets.

When the 2.5 GHz spectrum is auctioned in India, which is due to happen in the coming months, Prasad says Tata will bid for it with the intention of using it for WiMax.

As for future 3G services in the country, he believes that early 3G deployments in India will be focused on providing voice services, rather than high-speed mobile data.

"There is still a huge market for voice," says Prasad. "For another two to two-and-a-half years, most operators won't look to data and will continue to milk the voice market."

Tata's WiMax deployment is enterprise-led, with the exception of Bangalore, which the operator has blanketed with 150 WiMax base stations to serve residential customers.

"The primary requirement in the market is to provide broadband access," says Alok Sharma, CEO of Telsima. "That is the need of the day."

For the customer premises equipment, Tata is using outdoor CPE units from Telsima, which are installed on the side of a customer's building or on the roof. A connection is then brought to a customer's PC, laptop, or WiFi router, explains Tata's Prasad.

"There is not a lot of [indoor] CPE at the moment," says Prasad, adding that the operator was also unsure of how the indoor radio signal propagation would be at 3.3 GHz. "So, we wanted to be safe and went with outdoor CPE."

Prasad says Tata is testing indoor CPE from Telsima.

Telsima is Tata's exclusive WiMax supplier and claims that it beat out all the "household name" equipment suppliers to win Tata's business. But the operator says it is also considering adding with another supplier for its WiMax deployment. (See Telsima Boasts WiMax Deals, WiMax Startup Telsima Pockets $50M, Telsima Adds Sub-GHz WiMax, Telsima Launches Gear, Telsima WiMax Gear Certified, Telsima Launches StarMAX, AlcaLu Completes WiMax Trial, and Alcatel, C-DOT Team Up .)

Tata isn't the only operator with WiMax plans in India. Some have described the market as being poised for a WiMax "big bang" as operators prefer to build out significant portions of their networks before making formal launch announcements. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) recently unveiled plans to spend $750 million on WiMax. Meantime, Reliance Communications Ltd. (RCom) , another Telsima customer, is also planning to deploy WiMax. (See BSNL Plans $750M WiMax Splash, BSNL Deploys Aperto, and Reliance Invests in Sequans.)

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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