Interview: Wing Lee of YTL Communications

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Former Sprint and Clearwire executive Wing Lee is now running YTL Communications, a project to build an $850 million nationwide — and mobile — WiMax 4G network across Malaysia. YTL is offering $1 million in prizes to stimulate new applications and devices

YTL offers $1m in prizes to stimulate innovation on new WiMax network

Wing Lee: Existing WiMax deployments don’t do justice
to WiMax. It’s supposed to be a mobile technology. How
can you deploy mobile technology and then tell me
to use it at home?

One of Sprint’s passionate supporters of WiMax is now in Malaysia building a nationwide 4G network and is offering innovators around the world the chance to win $1 million for the best new application or device for the mobile internet.
Wing Lee is the CEO of YTL Communications, owned by a large Malaysian corporation, and is planning to launch its WiMax network soon with the support of the country’s government. “The government gets it,” says Lee. “The country needs 4G.”
And WiMax is more than just a wireless way of getting the internet, he insists. First, it’s essentially mobile — something that many WiMax operators have not yet exploited. And second, its introduction is going to stimulate the development of wholly unimagined applications. That’s why his company is offering prizes worth $1 million for the best.
YTL is one of the largest corporations in Malaysia, with interests ranging from power generation to construction and hotels to transport — it runs, with Siemens, the rail link from Kuala Lumpur to the airport. “Everything we do is first class and first world,” says Hong Kong-born Lee. And now it is spending $850 million on the WiMax project.
It’s a rich company with, says Lee, “$3 billion in the bank”, and it has global ambitions. A national WiMax network in Malaysia is not enough. “My goal is to make sure we launch in Malaysia and then take it elsewhere.” He’s aiming for “a soft launch in Q3 and a commercial launch in Q4” in YTL’s home country.

Order for one million chips

How big? Some idea of the scale that YTL plans is shown by an order it placed with a chip maker, GCT Semiconductor, in February 2010 for one million devices. YTL will deliver the devices to terminal makers later in 2010.
“We’re not just launching dongles,” says Lee. “We’re not going to be investing this money just to launch dongles. It’s safe to say that everyone understands the potential of WiMax but few understand its true potential.”
WiMax, he says, “is synonymous with the vision of the mobile internet. What are the new devices out there that need to be connected to the internet but aren’t today? The internet is going mobile. We’re changing the paradigm and new opportunities are bound to show up.”
Lee has been with YTL only since September 2009, but he’s been with WiMax for much longer. Educated in the US, he spent 15 years working in innovation at US operator Sprint Nextel “which was where I got so passionate about WiMax”. Sprint originally had its own WiMax project in the US but in 2008 merged its operations with those of a rival, Clearwire, in which it is now the biggest shareholder — along with some other significant companies such as Google. Lee joined Clearwire to continue working on the merged WiMax project.
At the same time YTL was given the opportunity by the government of Malaysia to build a 4G network. “As a new technology the government decided it was best not to give it to incumbent operators,” says Lee. “They would sit on it because they would not be motivated to disrupt their own business. That decision was strategic and historic.”
YTL did its own investigation of the technology. “They talked to Motorola and Samsung, and did due diligence. They talked to Sprint. That’s how they met me.”

Samsung and Cisco as vendors

The company decided to work with “the world’s best for wireless infrastructure”, he says. “Samsung is the world’s best for WiMax base station technologies. We need a strong IP backbone. Who’s best for IP networking? It goes without saying that it’s Cisco.”
So Samsung is providing base stations and in-building technology, and “we have awarded the IP backbone business to Cisco”, says Lee.
“Cisco saw the vision and got excited.” The company wanted to take a larger role “and Cisco is now responsible for the design and integration of the networks.”
This is a deep collaboration between the wider YTL group and Cisco. At the time of the deal, in 2008, Cisco and YTL said they want to create a “WiMax centre of excellence in Malaysia to become a world destination for WiMax technology development”.
Cisco’s chief globalisation officer, Wim Elfrink, said at the time “This collaborative model is a first for Cisco, and demonstrates how governments and technology leaders can together provide the network as a ‘fourth utility’ for delivering services that enhance business productivity and quality of life.”
As part of the deal, Cisco will be moving more into managed services than it has before: running the network operations centre once the network is commercial, says Lee. “Cisco will take it over.”
This launch, a few months away, will be “a multi-faceted launch, not just data only”, he adds, stimulated by the GCT chip order — “the largest single order in WiMax history”, he says.
“With a network across the country the true potential of the mobile internet can be demonstrated. There will be new applications that wouldn’t come alive unless there were a nationwide footprint.” With such a wide-ranging network, “the very proposition changes, the opportunities change”.
But why WiMax and not 3G? “The biggest difference is the chipset. Everything else is common,” says Lee. “The chipset is not yet a commodity, but you can drive down the cost and improve adoption by removing the economic barrier. That opens up the customer base. That’s powerful, right?”

Mobile technology

Existing WiMax deployments “don’t do justice to WiMax”, he adds. “It’s supposed to be a mobile technology. How can you deploy mobile technology and then tell me to use it at home?”
So WiMax will roam? “Roaming is not that complex,” says Lee. YTL is working with Clearwire which has “taken leadership in global roaming. We have to build critical mass and roaming is an important part of it. We are very much part of that partnership programme.”
But the main goal “is to deliver on our promises in Malaysia”, he adds. “Once we’ve done that other opportunities will open up.”
Malaysia has 27 million people, with an average age of only 26, and the internet reaches only 25%. “Our goal is to improve Malaysia’s connectivity year by year to get Malaysia to be comparable with its peers in the region — which is much larger than 25%. We believe this country deserves a lot more than it has now. I guarantee the demand is there.”
At the moment access is concentrated in urban areas: YTL wants to run a nationwide service in the peninsula of Malaysia.
He returns to the scope of the service that YTL aims to offer. “Globally WiMax operators are just selling dongles. That is not what WiMax is supposed to be. Our aspiration is to unleash the potential of WiMax.”
The company has “a unique calling to show the world how this promise is to be realised”, says Lee. “The internet is about democratising the flow of ideas.”
What can it do? Clearly Lee and YTL believe it can do more than just provide access to regular internet services — and in order to stimulate the development of new applications and devices the company has created a competition with prizes of $1 million.
The mYprize Global Developer Challenge, as it is called, “challenges developers from across the world to create unique applications, content or devices that highlight the benefits of YTL Communications’ 4G network in Malaysia”, says the company.
The competition — closing date September 30 2010 — is aimed at developers or anyone “who believes in the impact of your creation”. It is open to anyone around the world, including individuals and teams, and ideas can be in concept form or at beta stage.
There are prizes in three categories — applications, ideas and devices — with prizes ranging from $200,000, and a special extra prize for the best Malaysian winner of $120,000.
But he’s expecting entries from everywhere. “We welcome anyone who wants to create a better tomorrow. Innovation is a global phenomenon.” GTB

For details of the mYprize Global Developer Challenge go to