WiMaxing the Digital Divide

SOMA Networks makes equipment with the express purpose of helping the underserved. So far, it seems to be helping the company as well.

SOMA has announced that its products are in use mostly in North American deployments. AT&T uses the company’s FlexMAX-branded WiMax products in both rural and urban environments, including a network in an area of Pahrump, Nevada (near Vegas) where broadband isn’t available to the 45,000 residents. Last week, CTC Telcom, a rural independent operating company (IOC) in Wisconsin, announced it will use FlexMAX in the town of Ladysmith to deliver broadband/voice packages.

“We were founded in 1999 with a vision to take state-of-the-art wireless technology and apply it to the digital divide,” says Tom Flak, senior vice president of product strategy at SOMA — referring in particular to using it for online access in rural or emerging economic areas.

The FlexMAX system is a “mobile” WiMax system, but at the same time it isn’t truly WiMax at all. The equipment uses the 700 MHz radio frequency band. “This is an interesting band, formerly — and still used in some cases — for previously broadcast television [UHF TV channels 52 through 69],” Flak says. “It has been reallocated. A lot of IOCs have purchased those licenses, and we’re bringing them a last-mile solution which they use for high speed Internet and voice.” 700 MHz, however, is not a band that the WiMax Forum has certified — therefore, by definition, it’s not real WiMax. “It has absolutely the same functionality, though,” says Flak. “It has exactly the same benefits people want to derive from WiMax.”

700 MHz is particularly good for going long distances (“10 miles outdoors,” says Flak), and it travels through walls just like your old TV signal did before cable, so customers of the companies using FlexMAX don’t need any outdoor antenna — though they do need customer premises equipment (CPE) inside.

The SOMAport CPEs are plug-and-play, and can come with both Ethernet and phone jacks integrated, so customers are up and running on the provider’s broadband and VoIP immediately. “That way, CTC and others can bundle telephone and Internet services and do it all wirelessly, without the limitations of DSL,” Flak says. “No new copper, no truck rolls.” FlexMAX CPEs use chips from Sequans Communications.

FlexMAX isn’t just 700 MHz, however. Flak says it supports seven different frequency bands — including 3.5 GHz — for different areas of the world with different rules on radio usage.

The company also doesn’t limit itself to companies bridging the digital divide. “We’ll sell to anyone for any application,” says Flak. “It’s a question of where we focus and optimize. Do I build a high-power base station for a tower to serve five to ten miles, or build one that goes on a building and services just a couple of blocks? We build macro cells and antennas designed for a large area, with suburbs and rural areas as our target.”

SOMA used to make its own chips for the FlexMAX equipment, CPEs and base stations, but now says it can easily find what it needs on the shelf from vendors. “From building it ourselves once, we have a lot of core competency; as we go with mobile WiMax, we’ll leverage more of the supply chain and integrate to get a complete solution in a cohesive form,” Flak says.

SOMA also has its own software, called SoftAir, which acts as middleware to handle voice quality and bandwidth efficiency, and hooks into SMNP management tools. In particular, Flak mentions OpManager from AdventNet as a tool of choice.

Flak says voice is something that has to be considered carefully. “If you buy Vonage service or another external ATA for quality of service (QoS), those kinds of devices depend on the local loop having enough bandwidth and no delay,” he says. “In the wireless world, that’s probably not a safe assumption. It’s important that voice be integrated for bandwidth allocation… you need protocols to ensure voice QoS. That’s why we go to the extra effort to build voice into the box. That’s not to say Vonage won’t work — but there’s no guarantees. In a heavily used network with congestion, it’s possible to see a performance hit.”

Neither cable or DSL has the issues with handling voice that wireless does, says Flak. “Building a network and assuming it will work without special treatment is a fallacy,” he says. But offering equipment to providers who can deliver at levels customers are willing to pay for helps everyone. For example, CTC’s service is $15 a month for just Internet, but $45 a month bundles it with VoIP phone service with unlimited local and long-distance calls. “Most of our customers offer both broadband and voice,” Flak says. “They can get $20 to $30 extra just for voice by building it in. That’s a big impact, a positive impact, for the business.”

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