Once the hot new technology in telecoms, you could be forgiven for thinking that WiMAX is yesterday’s news. Many operators have already abandoned their WiMAX rollout plans in favour of LTE mobile systems or fixed line alternatives.
There is one country, however, where WiMAX is not only surviving, but thriving.
Japan was home to 70.68 million fixed broadband subscribers by the end of March 2016, up 24.6% (13.96 million users) from just 12 months earlier. This significant year-on-year growth can be attributed to a sharp uptake in WiMAX/fixed-wireless broadband, which reached 32.34 million connections by Q1 2016.
This was driven primarily by UQ Communications, a joint venture of one of the country’s main mobile carriers, KDDI (32%), with East Japan Railway Company, Kyocera, Daiwa Securities Group, and the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.
UQ near-doubled its base in a twelve-month period, adding an impressive 8.51 million net new connections in the year-to-end-March, for a total of 18.05 million.
Significant year-on-year growth can be attributed to a sharp uptake in WiMAX/fixed-wireless broadband, which reached 32.34 million connections by Q1 2016.
However, UQ’s second-place finish in the Japanese fixed broadband market at the end of March 2016 – with a 25.5% share – was no easy feat.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) allocated spectrum in the 2.5GHz band to two companies in late 2007. Larger operators were forced into tie-ups with smaller rivals when the regulator issued stipulations that prevented third-generation mobile network operators – NTT DOCOMO, KDDI (au), Softbank Mobile, and eMobile – from independently applying for a license.
In a bid to enhance competition, existing carriers could only apply through joint ventures in which they were allowed a maximum stake of one-third.
The government received four applications, but only two national licenses were made available via beauty contest. Willcom and UQ Communications (at the time known under its legally-registered name “Wireless Broadband Planning”) were each awarded 30MHz of spectrum in December 2007. The amount paid for the licenses was not revealed.
Subscriber Growth at UQ Communications*
UQ subsequently committed to spending JPY145 billion over the seven years to end-2014, using its frequency allocation to provide high speed wireless Internet access via WiMAX. Willcom favoured the next-generation Personal Handyphone System (PHS) technology called Advanced XGP (AXGP).
In July 2009, UQ launched commercial services in parts of greater Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe. It expanded WiMAX service coverage to 100 million people by early 2012 and then extended its signal within the Tokyo underground system and along major rail routes.
UQ offered 93% population coverage by mid-2016.
The operator’s progress was initially slow; it counted just 806,600 WiMAX subscribers by the end of March 2011. Three years later its base hit just over 4 million.
This explosion in growth has been attributed to the May 2014 introduction of WiMAX 802.16m technology.
However, by the end of April 2015, UQ had passed the 10 million subscriber milestone, doubling to 20 million in July 2016. This explosion in growth has been attributed to the May 2014 introduction of WiMAX 802.16m technology, dubbed “WiMAX2+,” for smartphones.
And, of note: UQ initially introduced services offering 110Mbps downlink speeds over its WiMAX 802.16m network in Tokyo in October 2013.
Bolstering its WiMAX capabilities still further, in March 2015 the operator expanded the area of mobile Internet coverage while increasing the download bandwidth speed of WiMAX2+ to 220Mbps with its “Ya-Baisoku” service via a tie-up with Ericsson.
WiMAX2+ reportedly rolled out across UQ’s entire WiMAX footprint in July 2016.
It seems like the operator is now working on a 440Mbps service as it seeks to keep improving download speeds while driving down prices via a range of unlimited data plans.
Pete Bell is a Research Analyst for TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database and also contributes to the daily CommsUpdate newsletter. He has a particular interest in wireless broadband and was responsible for TeleGeography’s 4G Research Service until it was integrated into GlobalComms.