The theme for WCA 2005 was "The Dawn of Mass Market Broadband Wireless". Sound impressive? So was the list of companies and speakers vying for recognition in the broadband wireless arena. As expected, the groundswell of support for WiMAX has reached epic proportions. The early WiMAX promoters have products on the market and are preparing for interoperability testing and certification later this year. Even companies with competing broadband wireless technologies have joined the Forum to cast their lots with WiMAX--or at least to hedge their bets.
We began covering wireless broadband access about three years ago. We attended our first WCA show in January 2003 and have now been to four WCA events (all run by the Wireless Communications Association). We have written many articles about wireless broadband (see Sources and References below) and have watched the industry focus move from fixed broadband access to encompass mobile wireless as well.
When we first attended a WCA show, much emphasis was placed on technologies providing an alternative to DSL and cable modems for high-speed internet access. While this is still on the front burner, most recognize a fixed wireless solution, intended primarily for people in their homes, is a tough sell against well-entrenched wireline companies who already have substantial penetration. Fixed wireless will play a major role in markets with poor wireline coverage--especially developing countries and lower-density areas of developed countries. Another very major role for standards-based fixed wireless is in providing wireless backhaul; that application remains one of high interest to service providers and businesses.
In most developed countries, the in-home broadband game seems largely over. The main opportunity appears to be outside the home: people used to broadband want it everywhere they go, and don't want to have to connect wires or hunt around for hot spots.
Thus mobile broadband wireless access (MBWA) is an increasingly important focus. Companies with proprietary MBWA products--such as ArrayComm, Navini, Nextnet, IPWireless and Flarion--have shown that wireless service providers can compete by offering something wireline providers can't: broadband operation throughout a metropolitan area blanketed by wireless base stations. Many now believe that the biggest opportunity for WiMAX in developed markets will be as a standards-based mass-market mobile wireless solution.
Korea certainly appears to have reached this conclusion. As we said in our report on the WCA Winter Conference: "The Koreans are not interested in fixed WiMAX -- they already have the highest household broadband penetration in the world." They see wireless broadband as complementing wireline, have selected 802.16e (the basis for "Mobile WiMAX") and are driving for deployment of WiBro in mid-2006. We have been told that in the natural compromise that happens between making their date versus cutting back on capabilities, Korea has chosen to hold to its date.
It's therefore difficult to make intelligent generic observations and predictions about "WiMAX": like the proverbial story of the blind man and the elephant, it depends on whether you're talking about the tail, the ears or something else. There is a world of difference between WiMAX as applied to point-to-point backhaul, fixed broadband access to the home, and mobile "broadband everywhere" --with varied needs in different geographical areas.
We are focused largely on the growing broadband consumer base in developed countries and the opportunity they represent for mass-market broadband services. While we continue to follow the development of fixed BWA ("fixed WiMAX" or 802.16d/802.16-2004), our greatest interest is in the path toward "mobile WiMAX" (802.16e).
Our Personal Conclusions
We attended many WCA sessions and talked privately with experts willing to share their candid observations. Here's our summary at this point in time:
WiMAX Certification In 2005
The WiMAX certification process is well under way, quite close to the schedule announced a year ago. Many equipment vendors are participating in interoperability tests to make sure their equipment works together; most of these are informal tests to work out the glitches prior to formal testing. Participants are confident that the first wave of formal testing, which has just started in Malaga, Spain at Cetecom, will provide certified products later this year.
We found it helpful to understand the meanings of "conform", "interoperable" and "certified" when talking about WiMAX equipment:
One example of internal interoperability tests has recently been completed by Aperto Networks which tested WiMAX silicon from two different chip vendors. Aperto recently unveiled its future WiMAX offering called PacketMAX, which is being readied for compliance testing by the WiMAX Forum's certification facility. Aperto tested its PacketMAX base station (using Fujitsu's WiMAX chip) and its subscriber unit (using Intel's WiMAX chip). Aperto issued an announcement which said that their internal testing showed "interoperability between Fujitsu and Intel silicon".
Navini's Path to 802.16e
In a session "Comparing Strategies for Portability, Mobility & Roaming Networks", Sai Subramanian, VP Product Development and Strategic Marketing at Navini Networks, gave a talk on "The Whats, Whys, and Hows of moving to Mobile WiMAX". We found it interesting and met with him to discuss it further.
Navini is a long-time player in broadband wireless access. They have been shipping a proprietary BWA product for several years and say the Unwired Australia deployment in Sydney is the "largest BWA network in the world."
Navini's core strength is its smart antenna technology, which they say provides three times the usable range compared with "regular WiMAX."
Navini has focused on "broadband everywhere" and does not think fixed WiMAX provides the solution for personal broadband. It is therefore focused on mobile WiMAX and has announced its plans for convergence to certified mobile WiMAX.
Navini's next-generation "dual mode" RipWave-MX base station and CPE support both "pre-WiMAX" and 802.16e. Customers can install these before mobile WiMAX is completed and operate them in the "pre-WiMAX" mode. When 802.16e is completed, service providers can upgrade the software in both the base stations and the CPE to full 802.16e.
Subramanian told us the new base station will support a mixture of "pre-WiMAX," Navini 802.16e and certified mobile WiMAX CPE with the same equipment, antennas and spectrum. Navini cannot say as yet whether the upgraded CPE will be certified to interoperate with base stations from other vendors.
Navini says there are now 50 deployments of its systems with 100,000 modems shipped to customers. BellSouth has run BWA trials with Navini equipment in two Florida cities, and recently announced that it will deploy a BWA service based on Navini equipment in Athens, Georgia, starting this August. The Athens service is targeted to the needs of college students.
While much of the trade-show focus was on commercial WiMAX applications, many sessions focused on government applications, including municipal Wi-Fi.
In the US, there has been a lot of recent controversy about municipal wireless. As cities have started offering broadband wireless services based on Wi-Fi (see The New "Broadband Cities"), several states have recently passed legislation effectively preventing them from doing so, or throwing large roadblocks in their way.
Tom Lenard of the Progress & Freedom Foundation observed that broadband was not like streets and sewers; private providers were already providing broadband services and there was no need for the city to be involved. He said that unless there is compelling evidence of a market failure, provision of such services should come from private enterprise.
On the other side, Dianah Neff, Philadephia's CIO, eloquently expressed the position of her city and many others considering a city-wide launch: "I want to get my community connected and I want to do it now. We have a large number of 'reclamation neighborhoods' which need to gain economic viability and solve the 'digital divide'. ... This must be done with non-taxpayer dollars ... and there are private companies willing to do this in a public/private partnership. Telcos outside the US are partnering with cities; they think it is strange to see the battles going on in the US between telcos and municipal governments."
Much of the panel discussion was on whether muni wireless promotes or thwarts competition. During the Q&A, a member of the audience asked "If it is such a good deal to do this, why wouldn't a private company come in and do it alone?" One of the panelists blurted out: "What small competitor would come in and compete with the incumbent in their own territory. Are you nuts?"
Sprint and Nextel, respectively the third- and fifth-ranked US wireless carriers, announced late in 2004 a plan to join forces. Shareholders have approved the merger and it is expected to close during the third quarter of 2005.
Both companies own substantial portions of 2.5 GHz BRS spectrum and both have previously conducted trials of broadband wireless technologies. Nextel recently completed an extensive trial of Flarion's Flash-OFDM technology in the Raleigh-Durham area (see Nextel Wireless Broadband in Raleigh). Sprint has participated in broadband wireless standards groups and in January joined the WiMAX Forum as a principal member.
During the WCA show, Sprint and Motorola announced an agreement "to conduct joint wireless broadband technology testing and equipment trials in 2005 and 2006 to help substantiate next-generation wireless network infrastructure requirements and consumer products for future wireless interactive multimedia services." This effort will be based on 802.16e operating at 2.5 GHz.
At the same time, Nextel announced plans to launch a broadband wireless trial in the Washington, DC area. The trial will be based on IPWireless UMTS TD-CDMA technology operating at 2.5 GHz. It will begin in the third quarter of 2005 and will cover Washington and several suburbs including Reston, Virginia -- Nextel's headquarters, and the announced headquarters for the merged Sprint Nextel.
ArrayComm and WiMAX
A year ago, we reported that ArrayComm was exploring the application of its core smart antenna technology to WiMAX at the same time that it was continuing to promote its competitive iBurst technology. (See ArrayComm: Two Tricks in Their Bag).
We were not surprised to see three announcements from ArrayComm. Just before the WCA show, they announced a collaboration with Intel to improve "802.16 System Range, Capacity and Coverage". The two will work together to incorporate requirements into the 802.16 standard to support smart antenna technology. "Intel plans to support ArrayComm’s solution with its future IEEE 802.16e WiMAX client device chipsets. This combination is expected to yield large improvements in overall system range, capacity, and coverage quality for 802.16 networks".
During the show, ArrayComm announced that it has joined the WiMAX Forum. ArrayComm's chairman was quoted as saying "The Forum is essential to the development of the WiMAX market, as smart antennas are essential to the WiMAX business case."
After the show, ArrayComm announced a partnership with POSDATA, one of Korea's largest system integrators, to incorporate ArrayComm's antennas in POSDATA's 802.16e base stations. They said WiBro base stations would be available in late 2005, with mobile WiMAX following later.
We have long believed that smart antenna technology would be critical to achieving the range and performance objectives for mobile broadband, and are glad to see companies like ArrayComm and Navini onboard.
What The User Actually Wants
The words may be as simple as ABC, but vendors and service providers know the road to getting there is far from simple.
Sources and References
We have written extensively about broadband wireless and WCA shows. For further reference, see:
( www.wcai.com ) ( www.cetecom.es ) ( www.apertonetworks.com ) ( www.navini.com ) ( www.unwired.com.au ) ( www.phila.gov ) ( www.sprint.com ) ( www.nextel.com ) ( www.motorola.com ) ( www.ipwireless.com ) ( www.arraycomm.com ) ( www.alcatel.com )