In the spirit of free markets, the government had allowed bidders for the broadband wireless access spectrum to use any technology when they roll out services.
Before, during, and for a while after the auctions, it seemed that most of the bidders would choose the WiMAX standard for their services. WiMAX, or worldwide interoperability for microwave access, is a proven standard with a current installed user base of around 400 million. South Korea, one of the most connected nations in the world, has adopted WiMAX-based networks.
Just a few hours after the auctions on 12 July, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries (RIL) announced that it would acquire one of the biggest bidders.
And then one single line in RIL’s subsequent press release completely churned the airwaves: “A single 20MHz TDD spectrum when used with LTE (long term evolution) has the potential of providing greater capacity when compared to existing communication infrastructure in the country.”
Thus, India was pulled into a prevailing global debate. LTE and WiMAX are quarrelsome cousins. Both are based on similar technology, and over the last few years, there has emerged a huge tussle for supremacy between them.
WiMAX supporters cite the technology’s established user base and low cost. They also say that LTE is too new and too experimental. Even many neutral experts say that affordable consumer LTE devices won’t be available till early 2011 at best.
Defenders of LTE say that their technology offers greater speeds, smoother transitions from existing GSM networks and better backward compatibility with older standards. Only in May, large Russian WiMAX provider Yota said that it was switching to LTE networks for all future deployment. From a timeline perspective LTE’s longer lead times should not be a cause of worry. With the government releasing spectrum only in September, few are expecting to see consumer BWA services before the beginning of 2011 in any case.
Someone who shouldn’t be interfering in this churn is the government. If the past GSM-CDMA imbroglio is any indicator, the government has a history of decisions that muddy already murky waters.
Multiple standards might cause trouble for players and consumers. But it is a problem best left to the markets to solve. The government has already done its job by handing over spectrum. The rest is up to the bidders’ biding.
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