For fans of 3G who are eyeing the impact of emerging wireless broadband technology, the news is good: In a few years, you'll probably have a choice. The emerging mobile WiMax standard and other networks that follow you around will probably be sharing the air in the next few years, but they aren't likely to displace the technologies that big cellular operators are deploying now and planning to upgrade, according to carriers, vendors and industry analysts. Instead, look for wireless broadband to be deployed by mobile newcomers, such as cable operators and smaller carriers, and as a supplement to a few big carriers' 3G networks.
Both 3G and mobile wireless broadband systems are designed to deliver high-speed services to users on the move, but they have different technical foundations. Whereas 3G is the latest generation of cellular technology, wireless broadband systems are the first generation of new types of networks. The two paths may converge in a future "4G" system, but that is still years away from being defined, according to Michael Cai, an analyst at Parks Associates, in Dallas.
Today, carriers and analysts view wireless broadband as well suited to rich multimedia and enterprise applications that are more likely to be used on notebook PCs than on handsets. Meanwhile, cellular systems such as 3G can keep doing what they do now, serving many users over a larger area using smaller devices.
Much attention has been focused on WiMax, which should be out this year in fixed systems but around 2007 is expected to go mobile with the still-developing IEEE 802.16e standard. The WiMax Forum foresees mobile users getting at least 1M bps (bits per second) and being able to do real-time applications such as VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls. That compares with average data speeds of about 400K bps (bits per second) to 700K bps on the major 3G systems.
There are other wireless broadband technologies, namely FLASH-OFDM (Fast Low-latency Access with Seamless Handoff-Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing) from Flarion Technologies Inc. and UMTS TD-CDMA (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System Time-Division Code Division Multiple Access) gear from IPWireless Inc. Both are available now. CDMA powerhouse Qualcomm Inc.'s acquisition of Flarion earlier this month could make FLASH-OFDM a formidable competitor to WiMax. Qualcomm said it sees wireless broadband based on OFDM as one of a range of technologies that cellular operators may deploy. But the potential for standards-based economies of scale -- even though a mobile standard isn't expected until at least late this year -- has put WiMax in the center of the picture for many in the industry.
WiMax can't outrun 3G in the next five years because it will take about that long to get established, in the view of IDC analyst Shiv Bakhshi.
"In the short-to-medium term, it is going to disrupt nothing, because I don't think it'll even find itself a very strong footing in that time," Bakhshi said. "By the time it comes to market ... the cellular world would have progressed, too," he added.
The roadmaps of major mobile operators in both of the world's major cellular technologies, GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and CDMA, are pretty solid, said Cai of Parks Associates. This is largely true even in China, a relatively young mobile market, he said.
However, cellular operators may embrace wireless broadband technologies to supplement their 3G offerings. One such service provider is Sprint Corp., which plans to have 3G in 200 markets by early next year in the form of CDMA2000-1x EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized). Its next step after that will be an upgrade called EV-DO Revision A, with a bit more downstream bandwidth than current 3G technologies but probably much faster upstream connections from the end user to the Internet, said Len Barlik, vice president of technology development at Sprint.
Even with that speed boost, Sprint is studying other high-speed wireless technologies, such as WiMax. The carrier has announced partnerships with Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc. to foster the development of mobile WiMax. However, the carrier sees that technology operating alongside 3G. Wireless broadband might complement 3G in areas where there is high demand for wireless data, such as city centers, Barlik said. Sprint envisions customers using that type of service for what Barlik called wireless interactive multimedia services, which would recreate a "desktop experience" for customers on the move. Uses might include interactive gaming, downloadable video and audio content, videoconferencing and other applications not yet envisioned, he said. WiMax might be a less expensive way for Sprint to deliver high bandwidth to customers with those demands, Barlik said. But the carrier is still studying other wireless broadband options.
"We're really trying to explore [the question], Will the technology meet what's being touted at this point?" he said.
Sprint has the advantage of holding radio spectrum in the 2.5GHz range, apart from its cellular frequencies, where it might be able to use wireless broadband. But even Cingular Wireless LLC, the largest mobile operator in the U.S., is considering whether to use such technologies to complement its 3G UMTS HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) network, spokesman Ritch Blasi said.
However, wireless broadband may be more important to new rivals of the big mobile operators.
"Fixed-line players who have been kept out of the wireless market because of regulatory fiat are likely to be more enthused about it than the cellular guys," IDC's Bakhshi said. Those players could include cable operators that want to compete with telecommunications carriers by offering a suite of TV, Internet access, wireline phone and mobile voice and data, analysts said.
Though some current mobile operators will add wireless broadband to their services, they will be in the minority, said Mark Whitton, vice president and general manager of WiMax and wireless mesh networks at Nortel Networks Corp. Nortel, a major provider of 3G gear, plans to add mobile WiMax to its lineup. In addition to new mobile providers in developed countries -- potentially including cable operators, Internet service providers and even media companies -- WiMax could present an attractive opportunity to service providers in less-developed countries where current communications options are more limited, he said.
In a large, developing economy such as China or India, "if they decided they wanted to give WiMax a place of prominence, it could accelerate the industry quite a bit," Whitton said.
Operators such as Sprint and Cingular would be doing the right thing if they offered subscribers access to multiple types of networks for different uses in different places, all appearing on one bill, IDC's Bakhshi said. Wireless data users are looking for the best experience wherever they are, he said.
"It's not the killer application, it's a killer environment," Bakhshi said.
SIDEBAR: WiMax has momentum, but alternatives are here now
In the race among wireless broadband technologies, the still-developing mobile WiMax is building up a head of steam with a community of supporting vendors. But less well-publicized approaches are available now and have some intriguing advantages.
Two of the more prominent WiMax rivals on the market are FLASH-OFDM (Fast Low-latency Access with Seamless Handoff-Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing), sold by Flarion Technologies Inc., and UMTS TD-CDMA (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System Time-Division Code Division Multiple Access), which IPWireless Inc. promotes as an easy migration for cellular operators. FLASH-OFDM got a boost earlier this month when Qualcomm Inc. agreed to acquire Flarion. Both of these technologies offer mobility today and are in commercial use.
WiMax, which has the potential to work on a wide range of both licensed and unlicensed radio frequencies, is based on the 802.16 family of standards set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. Gear for fixed implementations is expected to be certified by the WiMax Forum industry group starting late this year. Mobility will come with a standard called 802.16e, probably heading for approval late this year, according to Mo Shakouri, vice president and a board member at the WiMax Forum. Certified gear based on that standard is expected to go into commercial deployment in 2007.
Many in the industry are drawn to the potential economies of scale of a standards-based technology. With a variety of vendors using the standard to build competing products, certified for interoperability, customers should see lower prices and avoid being tied to one vendor, analysts said.
U.S. mobile operator Sprint Corp. has not committed itself to one wireless broadband technology but is a member of the WiMax Forum and is working with equipment vendors to move mobile WiMax forward. Though there is still work to be done on finishing a specification and building a vendor community, Sprint is optimistic.
"What we think is very unique is this global ecosystem around this standard-based approach," said Len Barlik, vice president of technology development at Sprint.
On the other hand, the benefits of the Flarion and IPWireless technologies go beyond the fact that they can be deployed today.
FLASH-OFDM requires less radio spectrum than does WiMax and can be adapted to many different bands depending on what frequencies a service provider holds, said Ronny Haraldsvik, vice president of global communications and marketing at Flarion. That means it could be used with low-frequency bands that offer greater range and thus require fewer base stations, he said. By contrast, certified WiMax products will only work in the frequency bands adopted by the WiMax Forum. The organization initially is focusing on 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz, though it may also adopt a lower band, according to Shakouri.
In addition, FLASH-OFDM is designed for network latency of 50 milliseconds or less, which means less typical delay than on WiMax, according to Haraldsvick.
Citizens Telephone Cooperative, in Floyd, Virginia, plans to deploy Flarion's system by year's end and hopes to take advantage of the low latency to offer VOIP (voice over IP) services, said Marketing Manager Robert Weeks.
Cellular One of Amarillo, in Texas, already offers a commercial Flarion-based service that can deliver about 2M bps to a laptop PC Card over the GSM carrier's existing 1.9GHz licensed spectrum, said Kim May, marketing manager. It supplements the operator's EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) data service, which has a top speed of 384K bps.
UMTS TD-CDMA is based on the existing UMTS variant of 3G and can be added easily to a 3G operator's network, said John Hambidge, vice president of marketing at IPWireless, in San Bruno, California. Because of its connection to the UMTS standard, it will be allowed on frequencies that in some parts of the world are reserved for that type of technology, he said. By contrast, WiMax is likely to involve new spectrum, new technology and even new zoning approvals for antennas, Hambidge said. In addition, UMTS TD-CDMA excels at delivering good bandwidth all the way to the edge of a cell, he said. There are commercial IPWireless networks today deployed by GSM operator T-Mobile Czech Republic AS and other service providers, and Orange SA in France is currently running a trial, according to IPWireless.
Both of these technologies have just one vendor today, though both companies have licensing relationships with large network gear companies. Flarion's partners already include Siemens AG, and the Qualcomm acquisition could help it get in the door at the many vendors that now license CDMA technology from Qualcomm. Meanwhile, a major partner of IPWireless is UTStarcom Inc., an Alameda, California, company with a foothold in China. -- IDG News Service
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