Bigger fish in the pond
Changes in the broadband wireless industry are most evident from who was speaking at the recent Wireless Communications Association International's WCA 2004 conference in early June in Washington, D.C. From the US perspective, speakers included a "who's who" in government, including FCC Chairman Michael Powell, Commissioners Abernathy and Adelstein, Wireless Communications Bureau Chief Muleta, NTIA Administrator Gallagher, plus various legal advisers, technology chiefs, etc. Senior-level speakers came from Australia, Brazil, China, France, Great Britain, Israel, Korea, South Africa and probably other countries we missed.
The smaller companies who have been around broadband wireless for a while--including Alvarion, Aperto, IPWireless, Navini--were there. But so were Alcatel, Intel and Motorola.
Powell spoke supportively about broadband wireless, but also mentioned broadband over power line (BPL) as another potential spur to broadband competition. He said: "I think the continued proliferation of broadband technologies--with wireless playing a critical part--is the key to that solution."
Craig McCaw's keynote started by observing that "every company that has gotten into this space in a broad way has failed". He raised the obvious question of what has gone wrong in the past: "As we're walking over the bodies of our brethren - all of whom have arrows in their backs - we're asking, How can we avoid this?" He said the solution is to provide "simple, cheap, consumer friendly, high quality" service "respectful for our customers". McCaw's presence, his ownership of supplier NextNet Wireless, his spectrum purchases and his purchase of Clearwire--which has a significant leasing agreement with ITFS spectrum holders--all speak to his intent to be a contender in broadband wireless.
At the end of his talk, actual plans for his new venture still remained vague. What is known is that McCaw's Clearwire will offer broadband wireless service in Jacksonville, Florida and St. Cloud, Minnesota this summer. They will use technology from NextNet, whose equipment has been in service for some time in Mexico. The equipment requires no truck roll and the customer pitch is an easy, self-installed high-speed Internet connection. Its differentiation from DSL and cable is that can be used anywhere in the service area.
McCaw founded McCaw Cellular and sold it to AT&T in 1994 for $11.5 billion. He is now setting out to become a major player in broadband wireless. He has a mixed track record, but McCaw is certainly a contender who should be taken seriously.
"Spectrum Is the Lifeblood"
Regulatory agencies around the world hold the keys to broadband wireless, since they are the ones that control spectrum. Spectrum was a particular key focus of this meeting, since it was shortly before the FCC was to issue its order restructuring the MDS/MMDS and ITFS bands (see news, above).
FCC Commissioner Adelstein was eloquent on the subject, saying "Spectrum is the lifeblood for broadband wireless" and "We need to get spectrum into the hands of people who can use it." Because he comes from South Dakota, a fairly rural state, his attitudes are very influenced by the needs of underserved rural constituents. He believes that unlicensed spectrum is an effective business model in rural areas. He made an important point when he said: "VoIP is only as good as its broadband connection."
The FCC has formed a Wireless Broadband Access Task Force, several of whose members spoke at the conference. Their role is to form "spectrum policy for the 21st century."
Commissioner Abernathy explained a common thread in many recent proceedings: the "smart radio" proceeding, the "interference temperature" model, the "secondary spectrum" market, and using the "white spaces" in the broadcast TV spectrum. Each was about "finding out if this approach allows more intensive use of spectrum".
John Muleta, Chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (WTB), said it another way when talking about the MMDS/ITFS reworking: "It's about making the highest and best use of the spectrum" while still preserving the rights of incumbent licensees.
Several speakers referred in various ways to what they believe is the underlying set of equations at stake here:
The WiMAX Drumbeat
You've got to hand it to Intel. They certainly know how to get behind a technology and promote it. When we last attended WCA in January 2003, broadband wireless outside the home was struggling toward non line-of-sight technology. There were one or two technical meetings about WiMAX (the emerging 802.16 wireless metropolitan area network standard), but it was so low key that the term didn't even make it into our article. Fast forward to the present and WiMAX was almost everywhere at the show. The WiMAX Forum™, which in April 2003 had 10 members, now has 104 announced and more imminent.
The level of coverage and hype around WiMAX has created an interesting problem for the group. On the one hand, the more the drum is beat, the more people join the parade--we noticed someone whose title at Intel is "WiMAX Campaign Manager". On the other hand, several WiMAX Working Group chairs pointed out that some recent articles are setting unrealistic expectations. That is their challenge.
We met with the Chairs of most WiMAX Working Groups, including technical, marketing and regulatory. The WiMAX technical work seems to be proceeding quite well. They expect to have products built to the spec but not yet certified by the end of this year. Those products will be built against the upcoming IEEE 802.16d standard, which enables operation with an indoor unit (as opposed to an outside antenna). Interoperability testing is expected to start in 2005 with certified interoperable products in the second half.
The first mobility version of WiMAX, 802.16e, is not expected until about a year after the "d" products, with volume probably in 2007. Of course this is where Intel comes in. The goal for .16e is to reduce prices for broadband wireless CPE from the current $300+ mark to sub $100 levels and then incorporate it into laptop PCs. As a logical extension to Intel's Centrino campaign for Wi-Fi, Intel will put WiMAX on cards and build it into PC chips, enabling the PC owner to become a WiMAX customer. WiMAX will complement Wi-Fi, not replace it.
Many of the vendors on the WCA exhibit floor have previously supported proprietary approaches, and are now embracing WiMAX. For example, Alvarion announced its new "BreezeMAX" product. Airspan, Alvarion and Redline have announced pre-“WiMAX” products. Motorola's announcement was about significantly lowering the price of their proprietary Canopy product (to sub $250 levels in volume); they have joined the WiMAX Forum and we expect to see them announce support for WiMAX soon.
Two other WiMAX Forum developments were particularly noteworthy. The first is the formation of a Regulatory Working Group, headed by Margaret LaBrecque of Intel. Its purpose is to help create an environment favorable to widespread deployment of WiMAX systems, and to ensure availability and global harmonization of WiMAX-friendly spectrum worldwide.
The second development is equally important and concerns the growth in WiMAX service provider members: there are now 26, a huge increase, representing a quarter of the members. New members include British Telecom, France Telecom and Qwest. Since these are the people who will ultimately need to purchase the equipment and implement the service, their presence and voice in the process is essential. The WiMAX Forum has created a Service Provider Working Group to formalize their input to WiMAX planning.
Even with all the buzz about WiMAX, there were other stories to be heard at WCA. Jon Hambidge and Madelyn Smith of IPWireless made sure we heard their view that there's no need to wait for WiMAX, because their technology already accomplishes its goal today. Their system uses UMTS TDD technology: UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) is a mobile network technology for broadband delivery over 3G systems; TDD (time division duplex) is one variant of UMTS - most 3G systems use the more common FDD (frequency division duplex) approach.
This February IP Wireless helped to launch the Global UMTS TDD Alliance. It includes many service operators, plus such vendors as Samsung and UTStarcom, for a total of 40 members. It's important to note where it was launched -- at the 3GSM World Congress. This provides an interesting perspective on the two different ways the industry is approaching mobile broadband wireless: The UMTS TTD camp comes from the mobile phone side (as is obvious from the 3G in the event name) and expands into broadband; the WiMAX camp starts from broadband and moves into mobility in the second phase.
Hambidge made several key points about the Global UMTS TDD Alliance:
UMTS TDD products are finding success largely with non-traditional operators who want to provide ubiquitous broadband services. The Alliance's success stories to date sound good, but they are battling momentum on the one hand from 3G FDD advocates deploying WCDMA, and on the other from the steam behind WiMAX.
What's Next?--From "Broadband Home" to "Broadband Anywhere"
Why are Wi-Fi hotspots and broadband in hotels gaining in importance? Why are operators rolling out networks with UMTS TDD and similar technologies from Arraycomm, Flarion and others? Its all about "personal broadband": broadband to the person, not to the place. The broadband home is only part of the journey; these emerging technologies support the user anywhere.
Korea, already the leader in broadband penetration and uses, is moving in this direction. Its "WiBro" strategy is all about "portable broadband Internet," spurred by the Ministry of Information and Communications. We'll learn more and revisit this in a future article.
We've run out of room to write about additional topics like interference temperature, the coordination of license exempt spectrum, why people think the 700 MHZ band should be watched, and lots more. WCA President Andrew Krieg did a terrific job of pulling together a very meaty program.