Hani Alami, CEO, Coolnet, is speaking about wireless networks on Day One of the Broadband MEA conference, taking place on the 19th-20th March 2013 at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai, UAE. Ahead of the show we speak with him about the impact of Coolnet on the region and the benefits of operating a wide area Wi-Fi network.
Tell me more about Coolnet
Coolnet Broadband Solutions was founded in 1997 with the mission to bring end-user internet services and dedicated lease-line services through one integrated solution. In 2008 Coolnet was awarded a license to operate in the Palestinian territories and today it owns and manages the largest wireless broadband network in the region using OFDM, IP, PtP and PTMP microwave links. It has 18,000 subscribers providing them with a reliable and stable internet service over Wi-Fi, both CPE-based and in hot-spot locations, offering full street-level coverage for residential users.
What effect has the foundation of Coolnet had on the Palestinian ICT market?
Coolnet has enabled amazing new frontiers to be reached. Citizens of remote districts and villages today enjoy bandwidth and services equal to those in main cities. The number of subscribers in the Palestinian territories has dramatically increased from 80,000 to 224,600 concurrent users and as we run on wireless networks our costs are lowered by 80 per cent compared to cable-based networks.
We devise our strategies based on customer needs and our experienced local teams have the know-how and are regularly updated with information about our sector.
What percentage of residents in the areas you cover have access to the internet?
Around 60 per cent of residents in the region have some sort of access to the internet. Through its wireless network Coolnet has built over 180 coverage sites around the West bank enabling around 55 per cent of those in its coverage areas to select Coolnet.
Do you cover both the West Bank and Gaza, and if so do you have issues moving data between the two?
The Palestinian territories are known for their mountainous terrain and districts spread out throughout the region, but the separation and border conflict lines makes traveling and logistics between the small cities and villages an even tougher mission.
We do cover the Gaza strip with broadband services, but only to specific multi-national clients who have affiliate offices there. There are limits on the broadband coverage we can supply due to [Hamas] restrictions and bans . There are heavy restrictions on any telecoms related equipment entering Gaza or for any company to establish its own network within Gaza. However, once we provided the relevant parties with the technical specifications, most of our clients in Gaza are allowed special permission to transfer microwave equipment. After that it’s simply installation, tuning and service provision. We predicated our success on remote training sessions for technical affiliates over video conferencing and calls.
As an ISP operating in a pre-state area what challenges do you have in terms of rolling out infrastructure?
It has been indeed a challenging journey for Coolnet to manage obstacles relating to the occupation and to build a national movement towards awareness of the telecom industry. First and foremost, a major issue is that the Palestinian territories do not have an international ports or airports to allow efficient and smooth trade with the world and Israel does not permit telecoms equipment to be imported. Additionally, the frequency spectrum in the region is fully controlled by Israel, and all spectrum slots for the new broadband technologies are not available. Since we operate in the unlicensed sub 6GHz spectrum, we are still short on the spectrum capacity we need to handle the operations of networks and to assist in growing out our infrastructure. There are also illegal small WISP providers using bandwidth.
What level of co-operation do you have with Israeli ISPs and/or mobile operators?
There is no cooperation. Although it abides by the laws and regulations of the Oslo agreement, it is a fact that all connections to gateways are controlled, and are connected to the global submarine fibre networks through Israeli hubs.
You provide ADSL access. Do you have plans for FTTH or even FTTP?
Coolnet’s Jerusalem offices were contracted many years ago to lay down a fibre network. Thanks to this experience we implemented a pilot project of FTTH in the Western area of Ramallah to high-tier residents. However given the market prices for efficient high bandwidth internet service the pilot phase showed no promise in such a venture in terms of ROI. Since the service pricing could not be subsidised or normalised to be competitive over existing services, another project looked at was the option of integrating Wi-Fi broadcasting stations and a backbone infrastructure of fibre optics. This project was handled by Coolnet and JDECO (Jerusalem District Electricity Company). These ventures gave us a reasonable idea on how to proceed efficiently with FTTH and FTTP and today we are joining with JDECO again to test new modules and service related paradigms.
Al-Rawabi, a new city project in the final stages of implementation has contracted Coolnet to lay down the design for a full scale triple-play FTTH network.
Your Wi-Fi hotspots – are these your own or do you have a partner?
Coolnet has built its own broadband infrastructure using OFDM microwave systems and expanded these to install Wi-Fi base stations on each site. The beauty of our design is its relatively low technical requirements. Using efficient mapping systems we can guarantee the optimum areas to install our equipment and even the best roof tops! Since our needs are so small, there are never objections from landlords over health, or living comfort around our systems, which has always been the case for telecom operators around the world. Today we operate our network over a single SSID to enable our customers to roam freely between the cities and use the same authentication scheme.
How affordable is internet access for those in the areas you cover ?
Pricing was indeed a challenge since we were fighting to reach the outskirts of cities and suburbs bringing internet to places where the landline company never visited. With the customer’s point of view in mind we tuned our offers by offering either:
a) Different bandwidth with equal volume-based quotas.
b) Different volume-based quota over equal bandwidth.
This is simple for the resident living 60km away from the city who does not want the headache of 10 offers or expensive unlimited volume quotas, when he would rather spend on milk for the fridge.
What approach do you take to users who exceed their caps?
Of course this is an issue we had to eventually stumble upon. Coolnet used to have free non-restricted packages, but through collected data and analytics we managed to get an efficient overview of data usage and the consumption of different users. For instance, between November through early February, around double the data volumes is downloaded by subscribers [than the rest of the year].
Our newly devised restrictions on download capacity came to life using this data. Our small volume packages are designed to suit light users who should not be forced onto high-price packages. But it’s not only the data volume that comes to play. These customers used to have a bandwidth of just 512Kbps but today they are running on smooth 8Mbps. So now a student living on pocket money from his parents can afford all the bandwidth he needs for his studies.
Do you provide full access to the internet, or are there any restrictions, and if so, who makes the decisions on what is permitted?
Yes we offer full access to the internet with the only restrictions based on special clients and their needs. For example, when we delivered a VPN project along with the ministry of education for US-AID, connecting 57 schools, we were requested to maintain a whitelist of web portals that could be accessed to enable the students to surf harm-free. With residential based services parents do request strict blocking of certain areas of the internet.
Do you feel that bringing internet access to the wider population will bring benefits in terms of improving the political situation in the region?
Politics today is affected by a twitter account! Not only does internet access help develop politics the infrastructure built to reach every resident around the country also enables commercial, governmental, educational and even security sectors to benefit from the abundance of high-quality services. More than ever before North American and European companies are outsourcing large amounts of work to Palestinian affiliate offices. The success stories of programmers and developers have shone tremendous light on the technical capabilities of youth in the region. This develops the economic stability of the region and thus in turn the political situation.
The Broadband MEA conference is taking place on the 19th-20th March 2013 at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai, UAE. Click here to find out more about the event