VoIP over WiMax takes to the airwaves in France

The construction site of a new highway in northern France became, for just one day, one of the hottest wireless networking hot spots in the country. Minister of Industry Patrick Devedjian held a news conference there Monday to outline his plans for the attribution of four licenses to operate WiMax wireless services across France, and network operator Altitude Telecom SA demonstrated how it will use WiMax technology to deliver telephone calls beginning June 1.

WiMax is an emerging wireless networking technology that offers the potential for higher data rates than wireless LAN technologies such as Wi-Fi -- and over much greater distances: tens of kilometers, instead of tens of meters. WiMax standards are still under discussion, however. The standard for fixed terminals is the most advanced, but other standards for portable and mobile terminals are also in development.

Altitude already uses 50 WiMax base stations to offer data networking services to around 500 customers in three regions of France. Alvarion Ltd., the supplier of Altitude's equipment, has promised to upgrade the terminals to conform to the final 802.16D WiMax standard when the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Inc. votes on it, according to Altitude spokeswoman Sylvie Le Roux.

Later this year, Altitude will begin selling the VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service it demonstrated Monday. From June 1, Altitude will offer business customers the service with a simple tariff: half what you're paying already, Le Roux said. The company will average prospective customers' existing telephone bills for the previous 12 months, and then charge them half that as a fixed monthly fee, she said.

There will be some checks in place to stop companies from abusing the system, and to take account of their growth. The fixed fee will be indexed to companies' annual revenue, and also to any significant increase in call volumes if the all-you-can-eat pricing prompts a sharp increase in their appetite for telephone service. "For the same usage, it will be half the price," Le Roux said.

The service can be adapted to businesses of any size by adding more capacity in the wireless network, she said. The company uses MPLS (Multi-Protocol Label Switching) to guarantee quality of service for the voice traffic in the IP layer, and the G.711 voice codec to translate speech into digital form for transmission. "It's uncompressed, so the quality is as good as an analog line," she said.

Altitude will extend the offer to consumers in September.

Today, Altitude Telecom SA is the only company still operating a wireless local loop network in France, out of 14 awarded licenses in 2000. It is licensed to run its radio network in the 3.5GHz band.

The French government is planning a second round of wireless local loop licenses, this time to offer high-speed Internet access using WiMax technology. The licenses could be awarded before the end of this year, according to Devedjian, the Minister of Industry. In each region, four licenses will be available, but the administration has not yet decided on what basis they will be awarded.

The telecommunication regulatory authority, ART, suggested auctioning the WiMax licenses, while licenses to operate 3G mobile phone networks were awarded in a "beauty contest" in which operators were selected on the basis of their promised coverage, capacity and anticipated future network quality.

Devedjian sees problems with both those systems, and wants to find a middle ground, based in part on a comparison of proposed prices for the future services. He also plans to hold on to some of the frequencies reserved for WiMax services, so as to be able to react to evolution in the technology and the market.

There's plenty of interest in WiMax in France: Aéroports de Paris (ADP) announced plans on Monday to test the technology at one of the airports it manages, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, northeast of Paris. Alcatel SA will supply the equipment, which will be evaluated by ADP Télécom, a subsidiary of ADP.

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