When big companies and serious money keep arriving on the scene, something real is happening. It will take a few years, but WiMAX and other broadband wireless products are making steady progress toward enabling the goal of "broadband anywhere".
This article will explore some of our observations from attending this year's Wireless Communications Association conference, June 27-30, 2006 in Washington, D.C.
Big Companies With Big Pocketbooks Are Playing An Increasing Role
WCA used to be a show with many lower-tier service providers and vendors. This year, big players such as Intel, Motorola, BellSouth, Sprint-Nextel, Nokia, Alcatel, Fujitsu, Samsung, KT, AT&T, and Cisco had the spotlight.
Intel's Vision: "Broadband in Your Pocket"
In a keynote speech, Scott Richardson, General Manager of the Service Provider Group at Intel, presented an update of his company's plans for WiMAX. It is hardly a secret that Intel has been a key promoter of broadband wireless using WiMAX. Scott made clear that "WiMAX is the foundation of 4G at Intel." That said, he expects that in any market, there will be three "on-ramps": Wi-Fi, WiMAX and WANs built around 3G.
Intel introduced the long-expected Rosedale 2 technology, which supports both fixed and mobile WiMAX and is pin compatible with Rosedale 1. Scott sees mobile WiMAX as being on track for certification at the end of 2006. The progression path will be Wi-Fi and WiMAX first integrated into PC cards, with volume and high integration in 2008.
Intel's vision for where this is all going is summed up by the phrase "broadband in your pocket." They believe that the Internet of today will drive the mobile Internet of tomorrow. As evidence of the pervasiveness of today's Internet, Scott pointed to the fact that PayPal already has >90 million accounts--more than American Express; there have been 287 million Skype downloads and video is now 60% of all peer-to-peer traffic.
Scott described Intel's goal as "$30/$30": a multi-megabit service which costs $30/month and has a 90% attach rate at $30 for the device. WiMAX will be embedded in laptops, providing one source of zero (incremental) cost for the user equipment.
While technology is an important factor, the major question that Scott sees as still needing to be answered is "how will carriers make money on WiMAX networks?" In his mind, developing a working business model and distribution mechanisms are critical for the success of the WiMAX market.
Intel and Motorola Invest in Clearwire
The week following WCA, Intel and Motorola announced that they are investing $900 million in broadband wireless provider Clearwire, for an undisclosed stake in the company.
Intel's investment is $600 million, with the balance from Motorola, which is also buying Clearwire's wireless hardware subsidiary NextNet Wireless for an undisclosed amount.
Clearwire was founded by wireless pioneer Craig McCaw, and has significant spectrum holdings he has gathered in many markets. Clearwire's deployments to date have been based on NextNet's proprietary technology. Although NextNet characterizes its technology as "pre-WiMAX", it had previously not expressed much urgency to embrace the standards-based approach; as a Motorola subsidiary, we expect to see significant pressure for NextNet to migrate to certified WiMAX. The Clearwire press release said the investments were "to accelerate the development and deployment of portable and mobile WiMAX networks based on the IEEE 802.16e-2005 standard" so we'll be interested to see how this plays out.
There has been much speculation as to how and whether Clearwire could roll out a nationwide network and who the partners might be. AOL resells Clearwire's WiMax service today. Bell Canada and Clearwire have an alliance in which Bell Canada will be Clearwire's exclusive strategic partner for VoIP and some other value-added IP services and applications in the US. There have been rumors that satellite provider DirecTV will partner with Clearwire to compete with the cable companies and telcos. And just what Sprint-Nextel and the cable companies will do is far from certain.
Bellsouth is currently using broadband wireless primarily to complement other broadband services, particularly in areas not well covered by DSL service. The company has already rolled out broadband wireless service to Palatka and DeLand, FL; New Orleans, LA; Gulfport, MS; and Athens, GA. BellSouth announced at WCA that the service is being expanded to five new markets in the third quarter of this year.
We spoke with Mel Levine, BellSouth's director of product development, about the service, which offers downstream speeds up to 1.5Mbps using licensed WCS 2.3 GHz spectrum and a small non-line of sight subscriber modem. The BellSouth exhibit showcased the use of broadband wireless following Hurricane Katrina and Mel talked about some of the company's successful efforts using wireless technology during disaster recovery.
Although BellSouth has been using Navini technology since its initial deployments, the decision for a major carrier to go with a small company as its equipment provider is often a a difficult one. Although Navini has been very active in migrating to mobile WiMAX, BellSouth's expansion press release indicated that it will begin lab trials of WiMAX using Alcatel's WiMAX solution.
Companies are Targeting Different Markets
Broadband wireless encompasses many distinct markets and applications, including fixed, portable and mobile applications applied to enterprise, back-haul, fixed broadband "fill-in", city-wide metro-zones, personal broadband/mobile Internet and emerging markets.
Some vendors (including Motorola and Navini) have chosen to focus exclusively on mobile WiMAX (802.16e) and have chosen not to invest in products for fixed WiMAX (802.16d) applications. In a recent telephone interview, Motorola's Paul Sergeant, Director Alternative Wireless Access, noted that although there is certainly a market for 16d products, it is not of the size that attracts investment from a large company like Motorola. Motorola is really aimed at mass-market products which will gain economies of scale and be complemented by relatively low-cost CPE.
On the other hand, companies like Redline are concentrating on emerging markets so that 802.16d products for addressing the fixed broadband market have been their focus. They have over 50 customers deployed and are working on their 4th generation systems.
There has been continuing discussion at WiMAX meetings about the relationship of fixed and mobile WiMAX systems. Although the plan was initially for compatibility, the fact that 16e and 16d do not use interoperable modulation schemes means that mobile WiMAX is not a superset of fixed WiMAX (16e uses OFDMA, whereas 16d employs OFDM). Some companies are promoting the ability of their products to be software upgradeable to 16e, but that does not address such questions as cost, spectrum, applications and markets. One vendor described the "d" to "e" upgrade path as an "insurance policy" for service providers.
The WiMAX Forum: A Pragmatic Approach
Some organizations seem to have a rather dogmatic approach to the standards they support and their relationship to other standards. We see evidence that the WiMAX Forum has benefitted by having a more flexible "big tent" approach that deals with and incorporates marketplace realities. Two examples of this come to mind.
Back in January 2005 after WCA, we wrote that the Korean group "would follow the current draft of 802.16e rather than waiting for resolution of the 802.16e debate." Rather than letting this become a battle of competing standards, the key chip makers from each side announced a collaboration to harmonize 802.16e with WiBro. Subsequently, the WiMAX Forum created a specific "profile" for WiBro, and WiMAX certification was divided into two parts. Wave 1 is a subset of Wave 2 and the WiBro products will be certified under Wave 1. WiBro was thus recognized as the first version of mobile WiMAX and WiBro products will be the first to be certified later this year.
As a result of this accommodative approach, the WiMAX Forum says "more than sixty members from Korea including WiBro service providers, and major vendors, are collaborating in various organizations within WiMAX Forum."
More recently, the WiMAX Forum has again sent representatives to 3GPP with the goal of ensuring "compatibility of and interoperability of 3GPP systems with broadband wireless access networks (IEEE 802.16)." Both sides are aware of the importance of interworking between WiMAX and 3G technologies, but there is likely to be lots of political maneuvering.
Comparative Performance Data Favors WiMAX
Siavash Alamouti, CTO Service Provider Business Group at Intel, spoke in a session titled "Unveiling WiMAX-3G Comparative Performance Data". Alamouti is an Intel Fellow and one of those people whose name is linked with key work he did, in this case the Alamouti Space-Time Block Code. Despite this prestigious background, we're glad to report that he also has the talent for making complex topics seem understandable.
At WCA, Alamouti's analysis quantified the technology differences between mobile WiMAX, 3GPP2 (1X-EVDO Rev A and Rev B) and 3GPP (HSDPA/HSUPA). It involved throughput and spectral efficiency performance comparisons, based on simulations using a common set of parameters. The analysis was done as a combined effort of many people from several WiMAX Forum organizations.
Given Intel's strong advocacy for WiMAX, it wasn't surprising that the analysis showed that WiMAX provides advantages over 3G enhancements in both spectral efficiency and channel/sector throughput in both the downlink and uplink directions. For anyone seeking a tutorial on the details of the various technologies, the full paper Mobile WiMAX – Part II: A Comparative Analysis provides lucid explanations of some difficult concepts.
WiBro Has Launched!
A panel on Korean WiBro talked about its current and future status. KT had launched a pilot service in April and started commercial service on the day of the session, June 29th. In his talk, Dr. Jin Dae Kim of KT explained that the Chinese characters for WiBro represent "lying in bed, on the move, floating and on the road"--all the places WiBro could be used. KT intends to have full-scale commercial WiBro available this year.
One of the many benefits of having WiBro launched in Korea is to learn what new capabilities and features are proving popular. One such feature--the "push to all" capability--was highlighted; it can be thought of as a combination of push to talk and instant messaging.
In the WiBro session, Tom Jasny, Vice President for Wireless Broadband Networks at Samsung Telecommunications America, showed an interesting chart showing many different frequency bands currently or potentially allocated for WiMAX, ranging from the 500 MHz band (the Americas, Middle East and Africa) to the 3.4-3.6 GHz band (much of the world except the USA, Korea and Japan). Our discussions with vendors indicated that it will likely be some time before we will see multi-band radios agile across all these bands and different profiles.
View From the Chipmakers
In the "Chipmakers Roadmaps & Timetables", speakers from WiMAX chipmakers including Beceem Communications, Fujitsu Microelectronics, Intel, and SEQUANS Communications discussed the timetable for mobile WiMAX certification and wide-scale deployment. Certification testing for Wave 1--targeted for WiBro--should take place later this year, and all the chipmakers except Fujitsu said they would be ready in time.
Wave 2, which adds the key MIMO and beam forming technologies necessary for greater range, is not expected to occur until June 2007. All vendors said they would be ready for Wave 2, and several said they expected to ship compliant chips well in advance of the certification testing.
When asked about their readiness for wide-scale deployments, the chipmakers seemed to agree that the ramp-up would start in late 2007 or early 2008. Those involved in WiBro indicated that they thought it could provide significant volumes even earlier.
It's Not Just WiMAX
Although WCA was dominated by talk of WiMAX, there was some discussion of alternative approaches, including TD-CDMA from IP Wireless and FLASH-OFDM from the Flarion division of Qualcomm. Many of the conference speakers agreed that "there will be multiple radio technologies".
Next Generation Mobile Networks
Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) is an initiative launched by leading mobile operators, with strong participation of their CTOs. Participants include China Mobile Communications Corporation, KPN Mobile, NTT DoCoMo, Orange, Sprint-Nextel, T-Mobile and Vodafone. Its goal is "to provide a set of recommendations for the creation of networks suitable for the competitive delivery of mobile broadband services and cost-efficient eventual replacement of existing networks. This initiative intends to complement and support the work within standardization bodies by providing a coherent view of what the operator community is going to require in the decade beyond 2010...The initial objective of the initiative is the commercial launch of a new experience in mobile broadband communications by 2010."
Our understanding of the effort is that the CTO group wants to define targets that next-gen systems must meet and to drive decisions faster and make them cost effective and practical. One interpretation is that the group wants to set the bar higher for 3G Long Term Evolution (LTE) requirements and to minimize complexity by limiting the number of options. The unofficial interpretation was that NGMN is a reaction to mobile WiMAX and is about the mobile operators hedging their bets.
Whatever happens with the various factions in wireless mobile broadband, we are hopeful that all those involved understand that seamless inter-working of various services is going to be expected by customers and should be the goal that all are striving toward. We know there is a long road to get there.
( www.wcai.com ) ( www.intel.com ) ( www.motorola.com ) ( www.clearwire.com )( www.nextnetwireless.com ) ( www.bellsouth.com )( www.navini.com )( www.alcatel.com ) ( www.redlinecommunications.com ) ( www.wimaxforum.org ) ( www.3gpp.org ) ( www.kt.com ) ( www.samsung.com ) ( www.ipwireless.com ) ( www.qualcomm.com ) ( www.ngmn-cooperation.com ) ( www.samsung.com )