Coming up this September is something relatively new to the telecoms world, but which seems to be attracting little attention. It is another auction of the airwaves, of the kind that recently left several telcos out of pocket to the tune of £22.5bn.
Presumably the third generation (3G) licences are safely locked in bank vaults while their owners recover with the aid of stiff brandies and wonder what to do with them.
Base station to rooftop
September's auction, announced by ecommerce minister Patricia Hewitt in June, is for more spectrum, this time in the 30Ghz band. But it will be different in several ways, the most significant of which is that it is not for mobile service, but fixed radio access, also known as wireless local loop (WLL). Base stations will beam microwaves not at roaming users, but at antennae fixed to the rooftops.
Sounds familiar? You might be thinking of Ionica, which long ago planned to compete with BT for household phone services by using just such fixed radio links. It bombed, and the whole concept of WLL was dragged down with it. This may be why the September auction is not exactly setting the world alight.
But there are differences between the Ionica concept and the upcoming Local Multipoint Distribution Services (LMDS), a clunking name for broadband WLL. For a start, the bandwidth offered will be much higher: up to 10Mbps. That means fat data 'pipes', and not yet another set of telephone services.
Users are much more likely to be attracted to that than they were to just another telephone company that couldn't get its act together.
It's also worth remembering that WLL didn't die with Ionica. One telco, Atlantic Telecom, soldiered on, surviving in the Scottish cities it served by offering two lines for the price of one, and extra bells and whistles for free.
Despite this, telephone services are not where it's at anymore. WLL player Tele2, an offshoot of Swedish firm Millicom, realised this and went commercial with data-only services and internet access at up to 1Mbps. Now Atlantic is going the same way, with a 2.4Mbps radio access prototype service in Glasgow, and a plan to roll out at selected English sites, starting with Manchester.
A third player, the snappily titled Zipcom, is to enter the game later this year, having raised £14m to pay the build-out bills. It will debut with data services up to 2Mbps, although it will also provide voice. After years in the doldrums, WLL seems to be back in the running.
All this makes the September auction of even fatter radio bandwidth seem far more timely. Can Gordon Brown expect another bonanza from the proceeds? Will there be another feeding frenzy as spectrum-hungry telcos attempt to snap up another slice of the precious airwaves?
Probably not, is the general verdict. Despite WLL's recent rising from the ashes of Ionica, it's never likely to attract the millions of users that 3G mobile, with its mouth-watering combination of mobile phones, multimedia and the internet, is expected to entice. WLL's range is limited to a few kilometres at best. And the biggest prospective market, the city-based corporates, already have the pick of broadband fibre connections in their various metropolitan areas.
Small is beautiful - for now
So where does that leave WLL, in wideband or broadband form? In its current incarnation, serving small to middling companies with cheap internet access, and possibly Lan connection. This is a neglected market that fixed radio, with quick and cheap deployment characteristics, is well suited to plunder.
Broadband could provide a growth path for these service providers as their customers eat up more and more bandwidth. But at an estimated £20m per geographically limited licence, this might be out of their league.
And they all seem to think that small is beautiful enough for now. Such a rare outbreak of common sense and modest ambition is heartening, but we'll have to wait until September to see if it lasts.
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