Mark Titus, Business Reporter
Flow Jamaica has thrown down the gauntlet to Digicel Jamaica and others in the wireless broadband market with free upgrades for existing clients from speeds of 8 megabytes per second to 12 Mbps and from 15Mbps to as much as 20 Mbps.
But Flow, whose service is delivered through hybrid fibre coaxial cables (HFC) is about to get even more aggressive.
This past weekend, the cable company rolled out two new broadband products - Flow Turbo offering speeds of up to 50 Mbps and Flow Ultra which it says can hit 100 Mbps per second - for "the fastest speeds ever", its promotions claim.
It's also the most expensive, at J$8,995 for turbo and J$10,995 for ultra, plus tax. (See price list for comparisons between the four largest players.)
"Unlike wireless broadband providers of 3G and 4G, Flow is not hindered by capacity, speed or poor latency issues, which are more typical of the wireless technologies." Michele English, Flow Jamaica's president and chief operating officer said in company-issued statement.
But Flow, which is part of the regional telecommunications group, Columbus Communication Limited, may only be able to make the claim of 'fastest ever' for a short period.
Just ahead of its announcement, Claro Jamaica, which is ultimately owned by America Movil controlled by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, told the Financial Gleaner that it will soon be unrolling a new platform - Long Term Evolution (LTE) - capable of delivering speeds of up to 172 Mbps. Claro has not said when it will go to market with LTE, but techies in the sector say they expect a December launch.
The jockeying to claim pole position and market status in broadband follows Digicel's J$2 billion roll out of its 4G WiMax services with 60 per cent coverage, starting with main towns in Jamaica.
Claro is not saying nor is it disclosing its exact timetable for delivering LTE - a platform described by technology experts as faster than 4G.
Technology sources tell the Financial Gleaner that while it is hard to define 4G WiMax speed, Digicel's platform would likely be equivalent to about 30Mbps, and that the infrastructure can be reconfigured for WiMax 2 to deliver speeds of up to 120Mbps. Digicel's response to this assertion was not available up to press time.
Claro's LTE investment is included in the US$300 million of capital that the company said is budgeted for the build-out of its entire mobile network, ongoing since 2007.
"We are looking for the next step, and our roadmap is for LTE technology, and with LTE we are going to a throughput of 172Mbps," said engineering director Raymundo Duenas.
This, Duenas says, will put Claro indisputably at the top of the market at launch date.
"Currently, we are growing at a rate of 30 per cent data customers every three months and our network today can reach 14.4Mbps," Duenas said.
"We have a lot of demand for data only, and that is why we are working to improve the throughputs."
Claro aims to capture another 20 per cent of the mobile market, and has made no secret of its quest to dethrone Digicel as mobile market leader, which claims a share of some two million customers.
It has even set a date - 2012.
Claro Jamaica says it has already overtaken LIME Jamaica, which is said to have an approximate 700,000 customer base, but others in the market have disputed that claim.
LIME is currently expanding its 3G platform under a US$35-40 million project in Montego Bay, from which J$620 million was to be spent this year.
LIME's 3G services were initially launched in the capital and St Catherine in June 2009 after a US$40-million investment, with a promise to phase in service nationwide in 12-18 months.
The company was unable to say, immediately, its level of broadband penetration.
Claro currently offers voice and wireless data on its 3G platform, which is now providing coverage for 70 per cent of all major towns.
And Digicel has said it expects to cover at least 410,000 of Jamaica's 750,000 households.
While the debut of 4G has not created the euphoria that followed Digicel's entry into the mobile market some eight to nine years ago, which saw a growth of 100,000 subscribers in 100 days, the Irish-owned company, with its 'Plug, Play and Go' concept, is pushing to reach those households still untouched by LIME or Flow.
Digicel says it is pleased with 4G sales, though it has not quantified the business generated to date. The new division has created 172 jobs.
"We continue to get great feedback from our customers across Jamaica on the Digicel 4G offering through our deal stores and from our Facebook fans - feedback that confirms that Jamaicans have been ready and waiting for a wireless Internet service that they can access without cables or landlines," the company said in a statement.
"We are delighted with the sales."
Flow has an exclusive licence that commits it to coverage of all parishes and an estimated 750,000 homes by 2011.
The deadline date is being renegotiated with the Broadcasting Commission.
The infrastructure build-out has been slow, with Kingston, Portmore, Spanish Town and Mandeville and certain pockets now enjoying full service, while work in Montego Bay continues.
Flow says it needs more time - to 2015.
A research and markets report covering Jamaica and more than 25 other countries in the region recently found that fixed broadband, or ADSL technology, still accounts for two-thirds of the market, but that cable modems were said to have been making inroads to the rising popularity of triple-play services - voice, Internet, video - delivered over HFC cables.
WiMax, the report pointed out, can be found in most countries - including Jamaica, to good reviews. But the researchers said that regionally, the technology has attracted only a small number of subscribers.
Claro has distanced itself from the current tussle for residential Internet market share, arguing that Digicel's new product is more likely to affect Flow's build-out.
"Any impact of 4G will affect Flow more than anyone else, and certainly not us," said Duenas.
"We are about mobility, so if you are a person on the go, all you need is a 3G sim, and as long as you are in range, you can access Claro's service," he said.
"Flow does not have fibre-optic cable everywhere, but we can quickly cover a semi-rural or rural area by air."
But Claro will have to compete with networks that are business partners with Flow, even in those areas, as smaller firms such as Nubian-1 and Dekal Wireless have already entered the market.
Nubian boasts a following in Kingston and St Andrew, Portmore and Spanish Town areas of St Catherine, as well as Montego Bay, and is now expanding to the northeastern parts of Jamaica; while Dekal Wireless, whose most expensive package costs J$,2,400, including GCT, can be found in all 14 parishes.