MTN in Talks Over WiMax Facility in South Africa

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MTN is holding discussions that could see it building WiMax technology into its networks by working in partnership with a company that holds one of the coveted licences.

MTN has been denied permission to turn its WiMax test licence into a full commercial licence, preventing it from using a technology that can cover large rural areas quickly and cheaply as well as cost-effectively boost urban coverage.

MTN has not lost hope that the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) may yet grant it a licence. But it is hedging its bets by negotiating with the companies that already hold one -- Telkom, Neotel, Sentech and iBurst.

"The door isn't closed for WiMax licences. We are working with Icasa on what licences and frequencies it is potentially willing to give us," said MTN data manager Brian Seligmann. "There's also a lot of discussion going on with potential partners that have a licence or have the opportunity to get a licence."

Icasa has also refused Vodacom a WiMax licence. That prompted Vodacom to pay an undisclosed amount for 10% of iBurst, so it can use the technology through iBurst's licence. The tie-up between Vodacom and iBurst may prevent MTN from reaching a working relationship with iBurst.

MTN will be negotiating with Altech, too, since Altech won a test licence from Icasa last month and is confident it will win a full commercial licence. Altech is not deterred that the cellular operators were also allowed to test WiMax before their hopes were dashed. Altech believes that is a tactic by Icasa to open up the telecoms sector to fresh competition, rather than allowing the existing dominant status quo to continue.

Seligmann said WiMax was not a network panacea, but was certainly one of the technologies it needed to consider. "We need to evaluate all the potential technologies. We must grow with the requirements of our customers and we mustn't limit ourselves to conventional thinking."

Another challenge is the limited amount of spectrum available. Icasa should ensure the existing spectrum was used more efficiently and consider freeing up frequency bands either side of the core WiMax frequencies, since they were potentially suitable for WiMax, Seligmann said.

Icasa is already struggling to divide the scarce 2,6GHz frequency between players wanting to offer broadband wireless and those preparing for digital television.

"There are major challenges in SA with the allocation of broadband frequencies to make sure WiMax can actually work. In some cases it's not available because it's being used for something else or it's just not been released yet," Seligmann said.

Business Day