No WiMAX Wait for Samsung

By Jerry Hodgen

November 16, 2005

While wireless broadband gets off to a slow start in the US, South Korea is making measurable strides toward large-scale unwired access. Thoughts from the WiMAX World Conference and Expo in Boston.

I had the opportunity to attend the WiMAX World Conference and Exposition at the World Trade Center in Boston a couple of weeks ago, an event that allowed me to get the scoop on where we are and where we are headed in the world of portable high-speed data communications.

I arrived on the first day just before lunch, promptly made my way down to the keynote venue for lunch and was seated at the same table with Dr. Hung Kwon Song, Vice President of Global Marketing for Samsung Corporation’s Telecommunications Systems Division. Samsung is a major player in portable communications devices (think cell phones) and has a vested interest in the success of high-speed mobile communications. Our lunchtime chitchat set the stage for the conference and also opened my eyes to the endless opportunities wireless broadband will open up for the consumer market as well as business.

The Demand for Wireless Broadband

Prior to the conference, I will have to admit that I had tunnel vision about the value of WiMAX. That narrow view boiled down to replacing the last mile local access circuits for frame relay and broadband Internet services.

WiMAX will indeed accomplish this role, but there will be a multitude of other consumer applications that will overshadow last mile communication links. Applications such as streaming video to PDA’s, cell phones, and portable PCs are one example. How about downloading music on demand to future versions of the ever-popular iPod or your favorite TV programs to your laptop while you are on a train speeding along at 75 miles per hour? The list goes on and on. Broadband will be a huge revenue engine for the providers who take heed and plan for the future.

What is WiBro?

Later during the conference, Dr. Hung Kwon Song presented the Samsung and Korea Telecom plan to introduce WiBro (Wireless Broadband) to South Korea in 2006. WiBro is a new term to me and Dr. Song’s presentation was very interesting to say the least. I was impressed, but not surprised, by the progress Samsung and Korea Telecom have made.

So what is WiBro you ask?

Simply speaking, WIBRO is South Korea’s version of WiMAX. It differs from what we do in North America because it is based on licensed spectrum in the 2.3 GHz band, which the South Korean government allocated in 2002, and just last year, the country’s Telecommunications Technology Association standardized the technology. The service is to be accessible to handheld PDAs and telephones, which is light years ahead of where we are in North America today.

South Korea Setting the Standard?

Now don’t think South Korea is going off on their own tangent by establishing their own standard. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure they have established a local standard, based on Intel’s WIMAX high-speed Internet standard, so that they can continue to move forward until such time as IEEE standards are ratified.

However, the South Koreans are playing a significant role in establishing IEEE 802.16 standards. They have a lot at stake in establishing global standards since South Korean conglomerates such as Samsung and LG are leading makers of portable communications makers. Meanwhile, in the US, we are waiting on the FCC to free up the much-needed spectrum currently used by broadcast TV.

South Korea Leading the Charge

If you do not want to wait, plan to spend some time in South Korea during the summer of 2006 as Samsung and Korea Telecom rolls out their WiBro Service. Our colleagues in Asia are leading the charge for wireless broadband.

Having spent the better part of ten years in Seoul during the 1990’s on a technology transfer program, it certainly brings a sense of pride. On the other hand, I am disappointed that the telecommunication companies in North America are not as agile and quick to market as our Asian counterparts.

Could it be that our Asian counterparts have a business model based on emerging technologies, pent up consumer demand, market share and long-term growth while America caters to Wall Street’s short attention span? You be the judge.

As I write this article, the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC), which is being hosted by South Korea in the port city of Pusan, is just getting underway. Korea Telecom and Samsung are taking advantage of this gathering of Global Business and Political Leaders, and are launching what is touted to be the world’s first wireless high speed broadband service that may be accessed via PDAs and portable telephones. These devices will be provided to these influential political and business leaders to use while they are in Pusan. An outstanding marketing opportunity!

I am confident that the service will have start up problems, and in all likelihood not immediately deliver the expected 2 megabits per second speeds, but I am equally confident that once the engineers put their heads together they will resolve the technical issues and will have a stable product for the summer of 2006 when they launch the service in Seoul.

The launch of WiBro service in South Korea is sure to fan the flames of mobile high speed Internet access, and if we are lucky, these flames will cross the pacific and reach North America a year or so later.

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