Friday, April 18, 2008

WiMax, Competitors Vie To Create Powerful EcoSystems

Several very interesting issues are at play in the rollout of wireless broadband technology. Indeed, the landscape that will dominate the next decade and beyond is being created now, as WiMax increasingly consolidates on one of two initial versions and steels itself for competition against other approaches.

The situation is fluid. Initially, the WiMax plan - to the extent that one existed - was for stationary and mobile versions to share center stage. Soon, however, it became clear that the mobile version could do just about everything the stationary version could. Thus, the impetus behind the stationary version began losing steam, said Monica Paolini, the founder and president of Senza Fili Consulting, in an IT Business Edge interview.

A lot of operators currently are deploying mobile WiMax. They are using it for fixed services. It's called mobile, but they can use it for both. On the other hand, fixed pretty much is just for fixed. Mobile WiMax allows you to roll out a network that supports fixed and mobile. The issue is having an infrastructure that can support all users. A lot of carriers will skip fixed WiMax, but offer fixed services using mobile WIMax technology.
The big issue is what operators will do after 3G. Mobile WiMax is one option. Two others, according to this piece in, are LTE (Long Term Evolution) and ultramobile broadband (UMB). So far, WiMax has gotten most of the press, though the technology may be hitting a speed bump. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal speculated that Sprint, which had publicly anointed WiMax as its 4G technology, may be looking to make a deal with Clearwire, a company that now has a proprietary version of the platform in the field and will roll out the standardized version when it becomes available. While such a deal may make sense, it could be perceived as a diminution of Sprint's embrace of the technology.

This is a sector in which partnerships and joint ventures will be vital. Paolini thinks that a battle between LTE and WiMax will not be decided by a drastic difference between the technologies, but by the direction in which the industry, as a group, decides to go.

Both LTE and WiMax use OFDMA [Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access]. Both have IP cores. There certainly are differences in the technology, but one is not a lot better than the other. Performance itself does not determine selection for mobile operators. It's more what the ecosystem is like, what the mobile community as a group wants to do.
Though the race will be close, one technology will dominate because of the fundamental support of vendors, service providers and others.
We expect whichever direction they take, they will move together because then roaming is much easier.
In this context, it's interesting that Paolini says it is likely that a new device will emerge. Cell phones and laptops are great, but neither is optimized to harness all the tremendous capabilities brought by wireless broadband.
But when you think about it, a laptop is a little too big to carry around all the time...most people just don't want to be bothered. On the other hand, a phone is a good device. Maybe a cellular phone has WiMax, but it is just an add-on that doesn't use the advantages of WiMax to the fullest extent. We need something in between, a data-centric device in a new form factor that allows you to capitalize on the advantages of mobile broadband. The other thing is to have consumer devices that have WiMax built in. It's a very good opportunity because the device is not likely to have a cellular interface.
The two points are connected. On one hand, she says the "ecosystem" - the intricate web of vendors, service providers, integrators and other assorted companies - will be influential in the relative success of WiMax, UMB and LTE.

On the other, she says a new type of device will be a deciding factor. Clearly, device makers, along with the companies that make the chips and other elements that are packed into them, are key members of any ecosystem. The immediate future of this sector would be easy to predict if one of the technologies was far superior to the others. This isn't so; it will be a confusing and hotly contested arena until one platform takes control. The key will be to follow the ecosystem.

By Carl Weinschenk