A thousand internet users in Cape Town and Johannesburg are being roped in to test broadband wireless services by MWEB. The tests for WiMax technology will be fully operational within two months, after MWEB gained a test licence from the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa).

The company hopes to win a commercial WiMax licence when Icasa finally allocates the remaining spectrum. So far only the partially state-owned Telkom, Neotel and Sentech and privately owned iBurst have been granted access to the scarce frequencies. The cellular operators MTN and Vodacom had their applications rejected. That did not deter MWEB from applying for a licence, as has Altech, which is also planning WiMax trials.

WiMax can cover large and remote areas relatively cheaply with a coverage area of up to 20km from each base station, and can throw a wireless blanket over urban areas with less infrastructure than rival technologies. It is a relatively new technology and tests around the world are generating almost as much hype as hope.

In February MWEB set up a WiMax network in Namibia, after winning a licence from the Namibian Communication Commission. In a barbed attack on Icasa, MWEB CEO Rudi Jansen said the Namibian government had shown incredible foresight in boldly licensing a commercial operator, rather than just supporting state-owned players.

"It's important that WiMax licences are allocated to private enterprises, rather than just to state enterprises and telcos, if end users are to really benefit," he said.

After winning the test licence in SA last week, Jansen said allocating WiMax spectrum was a perfect way for Icasa to open the industry to new players with a solid track record and empowerment credentials.

"This will bring real competition into the broadband internet market for the benefit of consumers and businesses."

The company is erecting three base stations in Cape Town and five in Johannesburg and aims to quickly roll out unlimited broadband internet access to a large number of users in different locations. If it was successful it would bring choice, reliability, accessibility and affordability to the market, Jansen said.

Some of its existing home users and business clients in the catchment areas will have WiMax receivers fitted at their premises, and will not pay for the trial service.

Altech won a test licence in February and is working with Samsung Electronics to set up five base stations in Gauteng to provide voice, data and high-speed internet access to computers and cellphones. The tests from June to September will involve only staff of the two companies.

Altech CEO Craig Venter believes there is a strong chance of winning a full commercial licence if Icasa opts to create more competition by ending the monopoly of the traditional telecoms players. "I think some credit must go to Icasa in that they are starting to liberalise the market”.

Telkom began a WiMax trial in March ready for a commercial launch later this month. Up to 400 customers in Pretoria and Centurion are taking part, with access speeds of up to 512KB a second.

Business Day