Shots Heard in Mobile WiMAX Revolution

By Tim Scannell

October 13, 2006

Is all the activity at WiMAX World more bang than benefits?

BOSTON -- The technology tire-kickers attending the WiMAX World event this week on Boston's waterfront might have noticed the paradox before them.

Companies big and small sermonized on the coming new wave of high-speed mobile broadband called WiMAX  and its promise of anytime high-speed connectivity.

But it's still a technology looking for more believers.

"A lot of people ask why we need another network?" said Barry West, chief technology officer with Sprint/Nextel and head of the company's new 4G division.

The answer is "the one we now have has shown us this window into the future, but I can't sell that because it's too expensive to deliver in its current form. That's what this technology is all about, to provide a great experience and reduce the cost about ten times."

The problem is it may take a while for this promise to evolve into actual products. In Sprint's case, it may be a year or more before its mobile WiMAX networks are widely available.

And Sprint is one of the companies leading the pack in terms of development and trials, although 4G honcho West doesn't like being called a pioneer in this area.

"We've chosen a technology that is not fully baked, but it is close enough for what you need to do," he said. "The revolution already started, but we're writing the Constitution."

So call the WiMAX conference a preamble. It was filled with product marketers and a few buzz-word hucksters who are selling more of a concept than a packaged and ready-to-go mobile reality. Cut through the buzz and the message is pretty clear: Mobile WiMAX is not yet ready for prime time.

"It's going to take time for this stuff to happen," Alastair Westgarth, chief technical officer of Airspan Networks told Internetnews.com.

The challenges that exist include interoperability, compatibility, scalability and, enough time for the systems that support the protocol to mature.

WiMAX, in general, is not exactly a new concept. The fixed version (802.16d) already counts more than 175 deployments worldwide, according to the WiMAX Forum trade group.

Plenty of companies offer fixed WiMAX solutions, including Airspan, which claims roughly 39 percent of the total worldwide market. Most if its sales are direct and outside the U.S., although it does provide WiMAX systems to Nortel and Ericsson and their sales channels as well.

Mobile WiMAX (802.16e) is the new twist on the older version, and the technology that is causing quite a stir in the cellular, WiFi and even short-range wireless markets. Most major proponents claim mobile WiMax will comfortably co-exist with other wireless technologies.

Others say it will be a lion and lamb situation as more aggressive, reliable and inexpensive mobile WiMAX networks come into play and beat the current technologies at their own game, which is to provide anywhere wireless access to the Internet. This will become more of a factor as cities and towns deploy metro-scale wireless networks and are faced with cost issues of installing and running these systems.

"As Wi-Fi networks get more popular they naturally sow the seeds of their own destruction because they can't manage the interference," Sprint's Barry West told Internetnews.com. "Sooner or later, citizens are going to rebel against spending tax dollars on something that really should be offered by a telecom provider."

Short-range wireless technologies like Bluetooth, ZigBee and others may also be fair game since WiMAX can be used for embedded communications solutions as well. This means that we may soon see WiMAX chips in automobiles and household appliances as well as cell phones and notebook computers.

"You have to configure this short-range stuff, it's not secure, and it's on the unlicensed spectrum so its prone to interference," explained West. "So, it just becomes a management nightmare."

This hasn't stopped companies from positioning both fixed and mobile WiMAX as a framework for the future. IBM Global Services, for example, is actively working with systems integrators to establish wireless metro networks and lay the groundwork for mobile WiMAX solutions.

The company already has about 35 deployments under its belt and is about to get started on a deployment in California's Silicon Valley that will involve 42 municipalities and more than 2.5M people across 1500 square miles, said Diana Hage, IBM's director of wireless and RFID services.

Like Sprint, IBM is also looking to meld WiMAX, RFID and other embedded wireless technologies into the same network ecosystem. Previously, the pitch for such systems would revolve around public safety, explained Hage. Now, however, the goals are public access, small business applications, and municipal services.

In short, "closing the digital divide."

All of this talk about pervasive wireless networks and multiple communications technologies working hand-in-hand is music to the ears of companies like Motorola. The company is presently developing mobile handsets that include cellular, Wi-Fi and mobile WiMAX chips, and has been dabbling for some time in embedded wireless systems.

The company is knee deep in a mobile WiMAX trial in Japan along with Sprint and Japanese broadband service provider Softbank.

For the time being, however, this is just water-cooler banter until the results of this and other planned trials can prove that WiMAX is more benefit than bluster. And, as usual, the end users are the ones left holding the bag in terms of buying now or waiting until later.

"You can't go to customers without a flexible and scalable environment," said Airspan Network's Westgarth. "At the end of the day, it's either fight or embrace interoperability."



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