Alberta Special Areas Board plans WiMAX network deployment

Alberta is rolling out what may be the first commercial WiMAX network in Canada, which will provide high-speed wireless Internet access across 21,000 square km in rural southeastern parts of the province.

The Alberta Special Areas Board (SAB) is working with Nortel and Netago Wireless, a newly-formed wireless service provider, to build the network using the fixed WiMAX standard. The project will take nine to 12 months to roll out, but three WiMAX towers are already in the process of being commissioned.

About 80 per cent of SAB residents and businesses will have access to the network this summer, which will provide fixed broadband wireless comparable to cable broadband and DSL. The WiMAX network will support high-speed wireless Internet access, multimedia applications, voice over IP, business collaboration services, as well as video surveillance and remote telemetry.

“I wouldn’t expect a commercial operator to be able to come in here, build the infrastructure, operate the network and make a profit,” said Darcy Ferguson, SAB’s director of finance and administration. The region is sparsely populated, which means a commercial system wouldn’t be viable. “Without all the potential revenue sources being on stream, it would just be a tough go.”

SAB is a rural municipal area that was set up in the 1930s for land use control. It is responsible for providing municipal services, as well as the leasing of all public lands, and it is looking at WiMAX from a rural economic development perspective.

Building a network is not much different than providing roads or water systems, said Ferguson. “We’re in the infrastructure business,” he said. “High-speed wireless is becoming a standard way of doing business these days.”

But SAB didn’t want to be involved in operating the network, so it partnered with Nortel and Netago Wireless for their technical expertise and marketing skills. Netago will help build, operate and maintain the network, while Nortel is supplying the equipment, including fixed WiMAX base stations, indoor and outdoor customer premises equipment and wireless backhaul equipment. Nortel will also provide installation and professional services.

“What makes it attractive to Nortel is we have some fairly wide open spaces and they can see how far they can push the signal,” said Ferguson. This is a different story in northern Alberta, where the hilly terrain makes it more difficult to use WiMAX, which needs line-of-sight to work effectively.

In southeastern Alberta, WiMAX will extend the service area of Alberta SuperNet, a provincial government initiative that provides a fibre connection to 4,200 government, health, library and educational facilities in 429 communities across Alberta. But Alberta SuperNet doesn’t provide services to the general public; instead, it allows ISPs to buy bandwidth.

“It becomes our backhaul to all the communities in rural Alberta,” said Terry Duchcherer, president of Netago Wireless in Hanna, Alta. “And at that point WiMAX becomes the last mile delivery mechanism.”

WiMAX is being built on common standards developed by the WiMAX Forum, a non-profit organization formed to promote and certify compatibility and interoperability of broadband wireless products. However, there aren’t any certified products on the market yet – they’re still in the labs.

There are other proprietary solutions out there today, said Duchcherer, but you end up being tied to one vendor and one technology. “So you’re at the mercy of that vendor,” he said. “If they decide prices are going up, you pay more.”

In theory, WiMAX products from different manufacturers will work together – meaning SAB wouldn’t be tied to one vendor and would benefit from economies of scale down the road. WiMAX will also offer Quality of Service, so SAB can guarantee services – such as voice over IP – that isn’t possible using Wi-Fi.

“We see our participation as a benefit for all residents of the special areas,” said Ferguson. “It starts to offer them services that are available in every urban area across the province, (and) it starts to level the playing field for businesses that want to operate in rural environments.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.
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