NETWORKPLUS OFFERS ISLAND-WIDE WIMAX COVERAGE

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By the end of the year, Mauritius should be the first nation in the world fully covered by a WiMAX network. Only outlying islands will not be included in the network built by Networkplus. In 1989, Mauritius became the first country south of the equator with a cellular mobile network (TACS). In 2004, the island featured Africa's first UMTS network. On second of June 2005, only five days after the license had been issued, Networkplus started its WiMAX network "Nomad" for business users. Some two months later, individual consumers can also sign up as well. Daniel AJ Sokolov (www.mediaclinic.de) met Network Plus' Rizwan Rahim at his headquarters in the Mauritius Cyber Tower and also talked to the island's second WiMAX contender DCL.

In June, when Nomad started, about 60 percent of the main island were covered (giving 70 percent population coverage). The aim is to reach 100 percent by the end of the year, with the exception of the outlying islands of Rodrigues and Agalega. Rahim expects to need some 40 to 60 base stations to fully cover Mauritius. Whenever possible, he has colocated his transmitters with MCML, the Mauritian radio and TV network operator. To connect his base stations, Rahim uses mainly microwave. His company's owners are a private investor from Dubai and the local entrepreneur Shankar Peerthy. The WiMAX-equipment, operating in the 2.5 to 2.7 GHz band, is bought from Navini.

Corporate users can choose between two bandwiths: 512 kbit/s for about US$100 per month or 128 kbit/s for around US$ 60. This is more than consumers pay, but it gives corporate users a higher priority on the shared bandwith. Before Nomad was launched, there were only 6,000 individual and 3-5,000 business users with a broadband connection, according to Rahim. Telco incumbent Mauritius Telecom probably has a 96% market share. Networkplus would like to target the 700,000 affluent tourists who come to the island every year.

Individual nomad-users can go online everywhere in the coverage area, they are not restricted to just their home. However, the license (which cost Networkplus US$60,000 plus another US$60,000 per year) does not allow Networkplus to enable handovers between its base stations. So if a customers moves from one base station area to another with a laptop connected to the internet, he or she would have to reconnect at some point. "We are not allowed to operate a mobile service", explains Rahim (which also explains the brand name "Nomad"). As this is a restriction he seems to have accepted for the time being, he is not happy with the way his application was handled by the regulator. "The ICTA does not factor in the imperatives (time is money) of the business. It took us six months to get the license", Rahim complains.

Backhaul-wise, he has to rely on the SAFE cable. This is the only cable reaching Mauritius and MT has a monopoly on that connection, which makes all competitors vulnerable to price squeezing. But the new government is investigating buying out MT’s monopoly which otherwise would last until 2007.

"The new government has to keep the word given (by the old government) to investors", Rahim demands, "And protect new entrants." Adding: "We believe in the Cyber Island Strategy." However, he sees several shortcomings: The price of bandwith is much too high and it is hard to find qualified staff. What's more, import duties are very high and reach up to 80 percent on technical equipment. Under the ICT-scheme, there is an incentive for new companies which relieves them of duties for a couple of years - but ISP equipment is not part of that exemption.

"The Cyber Tower (where Networkplus has it's HQ) puts Mauritius on the map. But it's horrendously expensive", Rahim tells, "What's worse, (as a tenant) you don't feel valued. We do anything not to depend on this building." The lack of a food court, harassement by the parking lot guys and problems with electricity/lack of a USV are all on his complaints list. He choose it as his HQ's location anyway: "It is a strategic positioning. It boosts your image and you can get some other tenants as customers." There is already a second Cyber Tower being built close by, but 50 percent of the new office space will be used by the government and not by new ICT companies... A third cyber tower is to be put to use in another part of Mauritius.

There is already a second WiMAX network on the horizon. Data Communication Limited (DCL) has applied for a WiMAX license and wants to build a network with nationwide coverage this year, including Rodrigues’ 30,000 inhabitants

DCL was estblished in 1997 to offer services to the ICT industry. In the beginning, it imported hardware, software and networking equipment. With the telecommunications market liberalization in 2001, DCL began to offer ISP services under the brandname "smartnet". In 2003 the ILD service "easicall" followed. In the first half of 2005, DCL applied for WiMAX frequencies.

DCL was driven out of the unbundled broadband market earlier, when the incumbent suddenly stopped unbundling lines. Now, DCL resells MT's ADSL, has some customers on its own infrastructure and operates four internet cafes. Also, DCL connects a little over half of all public internet terminals put in place in all 108 post offices of Mauritius. The other half is served by MT's subsidiary Telecom plus. The terminals can be used by everyone free of charge. The project is funded by the ICT Authority. A government project to connect all schools was started in 2001, but failed.

DCL's managing director Ganesh Ramalingum estimates, that Telecom plus has some 60,000 to 70,000 dialup accounts, which probably means there are around 250,000 to 300,000 users. According to Ramalingum: "There are a maximum of 5,000 ADSL accounts on Mauritius." So DCL sees a big market opportunity for broadband connections. However: "The government needs to amend some legislation, to get (the cyber strategy) working. The Cyber Tower was a good start, as there was need for such infrastructure. But the rent is too high."