Jayhun Mollazade, AzQtel: We want to overlay Baku with LTE
and then move the WiMax equipment to rural areas. We’ll keep
the WiMax there until we have successfully rolled out TDD LTE
WiMax operator AzQtel is planning to start switching its customers in Azerbaijan to TDD LTE as soon as it can conclude negotiations with potential vendors.
The company has been running WiMax operations in Baku, the capital, and a number of other cities since 2007 and it relaunched using the brand name Sazz three years later.
Now, though, the network is full in the urban areas, says CEO Jayhun Mollazade, and the company is planning to overlay it with the TDD — time-division duplex — variant of LTE, the 4G system which is the latest generation of the global GSM family.
“There is more demand that we can supply,” says Mollazade, who was speaking to Global Telecoms Business at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. “We want to overlay Baku with LTE and then move the WiMax equipment to rural areas. We’ll keep the WiMax there until we have successfully rolled out TDD LTE nationwide.”
Mollazade was speaking to Global Telecoms Business at an event hosted in Barcelona by Huawei, one of the biggest proponents of TDD LTE technology, but according to him AzQtel has not decided which vendor to use.
“At the moment we are in negotiation with vendors to come up with a solution for the migration from WiMax to TDD LTE.”
WiMax still has three years of life in rural areas “and 60 smaller towns”, says Mollazade, “but for the capital city and other cities we are moving to LTE”. That will require 350 to 400 base stations, he says, while 450 WiMax base stations will be moved to the countryside.
The TDD variant of mobile technology was originally proposed by Chinese developers and the Chinese government imposed it on China Mobile when it awarded 3G licences. It has not taken off seriously outside China for 3G systems, but is increasingly being seen as an attractive proposition for 4G data networks.
Most networks, on 3G and 4G, use frequency-division duplex. That allocates the same bandwidth for transmissions in each direction — one channel from the base station to the handset, an identical channel from the handset to the base station. That’s ideal for voice conversations, when each party is likely to be speaking, but is seen as wasteful of bandwidth for data services where the end user is consuming services, whether websites, video or games, rather than uploading data. With TDD the same channel is used for the terminal-base station link in both directions.
“TDD LTE will give us a chance to get more out of the technology,” says Mollazade. “Our network is gradually saturating. There are limits to how much you can carry.”
The fundamental problem is, he says, that “you can’t put WiMax base stations closer than about 300 metres together” in order to serve more customers. “But we are already doing that.” With TDD LTE, vendors including Huawei and its rivals are developing techniques to pack base stations more densely together, including in some cases using a mixture of large — or “macro” — cell sites and small picocells to fill in the gaps or provide coverage in buildings.
Developers are also working on the technical challenges that occur when signals from neighbouring LTE base stations overlap.
“Increasing capacity is our major goal for 2013-14, and we see that in TDD LTE,” says Mollazade. “We’re better prepared for this technology, and the downloading capability of TDD LTE is higher than the uploading.”
Mollazade was born in Azerbaijan, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1960, and after independence when the USSR broke up he became Azerbaijan’s chargé d’affaires to the US for a couple of years in the early 1990s. Now a US citizen, he became a consultant working on energy and other infrastructure projects.
He lives in Washington DC but spends an increasing amount of time in his homeland. He is listed as a member of the board of directors for 2009-10 of the US-Azeris Network, which also says he is president of the US-Azerbaijan Council.
Mollazade set up AzQtel — which is not related to Qtel, the Qatar-based operator now called Ooredoo — in 2005 and began to raise funds to build the wireless broadband network. Eight years ago LTE was but a dream, but the first draft standards for WiMax had been drawn up a few years before.
“We are not a traditional GSM operator,” says Mollazade. “We are a wireless data provider, so we have more downloaded data than upload.”
The company has spectrum of 128 megahertz in the 3.5-3.6 gigahertz band. “We can build five or six channels of 20 megahertz each to give good bandwidth to our customers,” says Mollazade. Each channel can carry data at possibly up to 100 megabits a second, “and definitely 70 to 75 megabits”, he notes, “but we could double that by spectrum aggregation”, as defined by the LTE-Advanced standard.
The present Sazz WiMax network promises “download speeds of up to 10 megabits”, according to the website, at a monthly cost to residential customers of 25 Azerbaijani manat, equivalent to about $32. Business customers are charged 30 manat a month.
The market in Azerbaijan is “very vibrant”, he says, with competition from a number of 3G operators. “The president of Azerbaijan has been very supportive, and 2013 is the year of ICT [information and computing technology] in Azerbaijan.” The government has allocated $500 million to build an optical fibre backbone to cover every village in the country — a backbone that will be ideal to backhaul AzQtel’s wireless network. “We and the others can bring the last mile solution,” says Mollazade.
He sees that the next five years will bring “a revolution” in the build-out of broadband in Azerbaijan, under which broadband “will extend from the haves to the have-nots, narrowing the digital divide”, he says.
The backbone will be operated by a national broadband company, he explains, and these developments will have profound political and social effects: “Azerbaijan is making bold and rapid steps to information and freedom of speech,” helping the development of the economy — which is founded on the oil and gas industries.
Funds from oil and gas are being used for that backbone investment. In addition, says Mollazade, a free trade zone is being set up in the city of Sumgayit, about 30 kilometres from Baku. “It will be for technology companies, local and foreign, and the government is setting up an investment fund.”
Meanwhile, Mollazade is ready to look at proposals for the move from WiMax to TDD LTE. “Our shareholders and bankers have set a requirement for proposals from at least three vendors,” he says. “We are trying to get the best.”
The company is aiming for “decisions before the end of April”, he adds.
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