WiMAX World Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose? Wireless has increasingly been the subject of Californian utopians' fantasies for several years now. The propellerheads were coming, we were told, and armed with technology such as smart radios, the evil incumbent telcos would be overthrown, along with hated
authority figures regulators such as the FCC would melt away.
And we'd all be home for tea.
Which is quite a lot of ideological baggage for any technology to carry. Most technology fails because it isn't economical or doesn't find a practical use - such as the Flying Car - without these additional political burdens. However, after taking the pulse at last week's WiMAX World conference in Boston, we have to conclude the future is going to look a lot more like it does today. This isn't to say we won't have an interesting few years ahead of us. We will. It's just that the old verities don't go away.
"The mobile carriers are in the driving seat," says Andy Fuertes, analyst at Visant Strategies. "And they are going to get what they want."
Fuertes points out that many of the 'revolutionary' technology features touted by the utopians have now been adopted by all the major vendor groupings. Each of the three vendor lobbies are now exploiting smart antennas, says Fuertes, all of them to some extent are dabbling in unlicensed spectrum - with disappointing results so far, we note. And most overlooked of all: all paths lead to OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency-division Multiplexing).
Let's look at the three lobbies, and what ammunition each of them holds.
From the traditional 3GPP camp, representing GSM/UMTS/WCDMA vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson, Lucent and Nortel, there's a long roadmap of incremental upgrades to something Nokia calls 3.9G, or Super 3G, due for ratification in 2007. (Technically it's known as UTRAN LTE, or Universal Terrestrial Radio Access Network Long Term Evolution.) There are several speed bumps along the way, with the first and best-known HSDPA being implemented now, with HSUPA and Internet-HSPA to follow. Deployment of Super 3G can be expected by 2009, if history is any guide. But all these vendors have an eye on WiMAX too.
The WiMAX camp, or the IEEE 802.16 family of specifications, has been given mountains of publicity by Intel over the past 18 months, but technically it's Samsung who's really in charge. Radio veteran Motorola, which failed to convert its 1G analog mobile monopoly into the digital era, doesn't want to miss out, and is also making heavy investments in 802.16. But so far, we don't have workable specifications for mobile WiMAX, which means certified equipment isn't due until 2007. This gives mobile WiMAX a slight but nevertheless real time advantage over Super 3G.
Intel's publicity strategy for WiMAX depends on creating the impression of an unstoppable steam roller, but it's had a few of hiccups recently. Korea has jumped the gun, and based on a draft WiMAX specification (802.16e-2004) the government has tendered for a full national deployment of WiMAX, called WiBRO, which is due to go live next year. (Giving Korean giant Samsung the opportunity to develop its skills and an early market lead.) But one of the three networks involved, Hanaro, handed back its WiBRO license in April, citing poor performance. Intel is finding both the technology and the politics much harder than it would have you believe: its first WiMAX silicon has been upstaged by more innovative start-ups, and it won't be able to deliver on its July 2004 pledge to put WiMAX into notebook PCs next year. Or at least, not in any significant volume.
The third major camp is 3GPP2, otherwise known as Qualcomm and friends. And it's just acquired a very important friend in the shape of a former adversary: Flarion. Flarion has been plugging away at its 4G OFDM technology for several years, much as Qualcomm once plugged away at CDMA. The technology is crucial because whatever technology is chosen in the long-term will include OFDM. And Flarion can boast technology that already works, with successful deployments and a significant patent portfolio. Flarion's attempts to turn its Flash-OFDM into an IEEE standard, 802.20 was thwarted by none other than Qualcomm a couple of years ago.
Now, after Qualcomm's acquisition of Flarion, all of its 4G rivals must face the prospect of dealing with the most brutally effective IP lawyers in the computer or telecomms industries.
"Qualcomm has captured Intel's Queen," is how one vendor active in both the WiMAX and 3GPP markets described the move to us.
Fuertes agrees that Qualcomm is right back in the race.
"Qualcomm has outmanoevred the 802.16 camp and the UMTS group fairly substantially by buying Flarion," he says. "The 802.20 group will standardize on something similar to Flash-OFDM. Flarion's OFDM works now, has been through all the trials."
"Why would any mobile carrier deploy 802.16? All the early simulations suggest it's not going to be a big gain in capacity or spectro-efficiency."
However Fuertes still doesn't see any of the big three groupings having a significant advantage at this stage.
"It's a horse race right now that boils down to timing and implementation, and what licensing models are adopted."
"If the carriers want Flash-OFDM from vendors other than Qualcomm, they'll say 'you standardize it'."
And with incumbent carriers calling the shots, most of the opportunities for WiMAX are in greenfield markets.
Off the record, there's a rare consensus amongst competing vendors that the real market for WiMAX is in parts of the world where fiber hasn't been laid and where telephony coverage, both fixed and mobile, is patchy.
Free Spectrum proves spectral
One of the utopians' ace cards - the dream of smart technology operating in unregulated spectrum unseating the incumbents - is also proving to be underwhelming.
The WiMAX lobby's efforts to de-regulate portions of spectrum have failed to result in a significant pay off. That's because the much vaunted "smart radio" or "intelligent antenna" technology has failed to deliver significant advantages to date, and both 3GPP and 3GPP2 vendors haven't been slow to experiment either.
"Every successful attempt to free up spectrum simply frees it up for everyone," notes Fuertes.
And without a significant technology advantage to boast of in its own "smart radio" research, Intel's K-Street gang really finds itself lobbying for everyone, not just itself.
As an example of the challenges of operating in unlicensed spectrum today, refer back to the comments we reported from AT&T's chief architect as he was discussing the company's initial Wi-MAX trials.
Behzed Nadji said AT&T felt reasonably confident of dabbling in unlicensed spectrum for the Alaskan trials, because there was little electromagnetic pollution up there. Well, of course not - there's more chance of being eaten by a grizzly bear than there is of competing radio causing interference. But Manhattan isn't Alaska, and that's where WiMAX needs to be proven to work more effectively than Super 3G, future iterations of CDMA EV-DO, or Flash-OFDM, if it is to convince the carriers that it's a carrier class consumer technology.
With much of the ground-breaking work being done by start-ups, Intel's best hope of becoming a credible carrier vendor may rest on its investments and acquisitions over the next couple of years. But when Qualcomm can turn on a dime, and rip up its roadmaps by snapping Flarion, it isn't the only technology vendor with a shopping cart.
But 4G is very real. Last week's WiMAX World show saw 3,000 attendees - about four times the size of the crowd drawn to the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco recently. While Flarion, we noted not so long ago, was acquired for one quarter of the price that eBay paid for Skype - another wireless utopian poster child. ®