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Key addition by WiMax will make it possible for 700 MHz licenseholders to deploy WiMax: There’s been some debate over what kind of radio technology could be deployed in 700 MHz; Alan Andrews wrote up his analysis, and found that few specs that are deployed or in the process work for the amount of spectrum involved. That’s changed as of yesterday, with the WiMax Forum announcing a plan to create a roadmap—yes, that’s not precisely the same as having a roadmap—for a 700 MHz WiMax profile.
Having a profile means that manufacturers can work to a common spec, chipmakers can develop around a single set of ideas, and devices can be certified as compliant, which allows operators to purchase gear without having to engage in their own extensive and expensive testing. (They’ll still test, but this lowers the bar considerably, as they can examine networks that are already built if they arrive late to the party.)
I imagine this will take a couple years to reach full fruition, which is the timeline for real deployment in 700 MHz in the U.S., too.
Mobile WiMax isn’t yet on the market as such, but Clearwire has some test products in consumers’ hands in Seattle: Friend and colleague Nancy Gohring reports for IDG News Service that Clearwire is selling PC Cards and a mobile service in the Seattle area. This service requires an $80-post-rebate Motorola card—Motorola having bought Clearwire’s equipment division last year—and a $60 per month service with 1.5 Mbps downstream rates. Clearwire has no downstream usage limits, Gohring reports, as opposed to Verizon and other cell carriers with services that can peak to rates at or above Clearwire’s maximum. Clearwire is trialing the service, and wouldn’t provide many details.
(See comments for Steve Stroh’s take on the underlying equipment—which he expects is nomadic, requiring stationary operation, not mobile.)
Update: It’s pretty clear that this card isn’t anything new, just newly available. It’s definitely using the existing Clearwire technology, but in a portable form factor that doesn’t require a separate power source. There’s no new technology behind serving a signal to the card. Still, a harbinger of what’s to come.
Monica Paolini, a WiMax industry analyst and consultant, advises manufacturers, operators to make it easy on customers with multiple devices: Paolini notes that as mobile WiMax picks up, an individual might have service at home, a mobile card, and portable gadgets like MP3 players with WiMax built in. Operators may want to maximize revenue by creating separate accounts and fees for each device. Paolini recommends setting policies that don’t discourage customers from adding devices, but also don’t allow abuse of accounts.
Manufacturers should make it trivial to add account information to a mobile device to add it to an existing WiMax account, too. While that might sound somewhat obvious, it’s not part of the ecosystem now. Devices use SIMs or other modules to authenticate to the network and establish separate billing identities in the system. That won’t be the case with WiMax.
Qualcomm is calling it Ultra Mobile Broadband, but it smells like a WiMax competitor: Qualcomm has no interest in mobile WiMax, and lost out in the supplier deal to several WiMax-backing firms when Sprint picked its fourth-generation network architecture. But they’re out there plugging UMB, an evolution for its CDMA2000 standards that are currently deployed as EVDO. UMB can handle larger swaths of spectrum—up to 20 MHz channels, Qualcomm says—and speeds of up to 40 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up. They’re demonstrating a complete solution from modem to base station for carriers at the cell industry trade show this week.
(I believe UMB has previously also been known as EVDO Rev. C, just for some clarity, and the technology approach is what was once called 802.20 and was brought into the company through its acquisition of Flarion.)
One reason Sprint chose mobile WiMax over Qualcomm and other options was that they wanted many suppliers an a rich ecosystems. Mobile WiMax, even though it’s still an infant technology in many ways, has a lot of people pouring a lot of money in who will all be competing against one another. In the Qualcomm world, there’s Qualcomm and a few partners, but nothing like the robust multi-vendor jungle that WiMax appears to be growing.
The IEEE looks to 802.16m to turn WiMax into gigabit wireless technology: WiMax came out of 802.16, with what’s typically called fixed WiMax being 802.16-2004, and mobile WiMax being 802.16-2005 (actually comprising fixed, nomadic, and mobile profiles). 802.16m would potentially comply with 4G requirements, allowing a convergence of WiMax and cellular standards. The new standard wouldn’t be finalized until late 2009.
Intel’s WiMax Connection 2250 will support mobile WiMax: The chip is released with a fixed WiMax/802.16-2004 profile, but the company says that it can be upgraded over-the-air with new firmware to add mobile/802.16-2005 support. The trick, of course, is the back-end radio which supports three bands worldwide (2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz, 5.8 GHz), and has to handle the varying requirements of -2004 and -2005 coupled with the WiMax Forum profiles. It’s a little complicated, but Intel thinks it’s a winning strategy to promote current deployments and future upgrades.
It deserves to be emphasized that there are over 300m people in the US: Sprint Nextel claims 100m people will be served by its licensed “4G” service, while Clearwire says that they could reach 90m people. Sprint has more urban licenses; Clearwire, rural and minor markets. There is overlap between them. Thus, the idea that mobile WiMax with this set of licenses will replace 3G is obviously ludicrous.
This gives Verizon somewhat of a leg up in that while they might lag with their next-generation network plans behind a faster rollout by Clearwire and Sprint, and while Sprint will be able to offer multimode 3G/4G devices, Verizon can put all of its effort behind its recently announced commitment to IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). Cingular, likewise, while having its star hitched to HSDPA (high-speed download packet access), and lagging a bit behind Verizon and Sprint’s 3G footprint, has committed to IMS as part of its evolution. (EVDO and HSDPA aren’t incompatible with IMS; IMS covers the architecture of a network and how data is handled rather than the physical layer. There are some pieces that reach up and down layers, but it’s not odd for CDMA and GSM carriers to both commit to IMS.)
IMS will require an entire revamping of the cellular network to allow an all-IP system, but it could reap huge rewards. More spectrum is needed to take full advantage, but it doesn’t require operating multiple systems—where Sprint has now committed to running and upgrading 3G on the one hand and mobile WiMax on the other. Sprint is planning to roll out EVDO Rev. A by year’s end, and there’s a roadmap for EVDO Rev. B with even faster speeds from Qualcomm. Will Sprint leave the 200m people they can’t serve (with current licenses and plans) with mobile WiMax sitting at Rev. A speeds if Verizon bumps to Rev. B coupled with IMS?
This makes me think that Sprint has spectrum plans up its sleeves. They can’t easily get 2.1 GHz or 2.3 GHz spectrum—BellSouth owns a chunk of 2.3 GHz and little pieces of 2.5 GHz, so those will ultimately be able to be entirely in Cingular’s hands after the AT&T merger with BellSouth completes, and AT&T owns 100% of Cingular and 100% of those licenses.
The article says that up to 50 cities in the UK could offer WiMax networks: Intel is investing £14 million in Pipex, which plans to roll service out broadly by 2008. The company currently competes in other telecoms businesses. The rollout will start in Manchester in 2007 with eight large cities added in 2008; up to 50 would eventually get the networks.
Clearly, these are 802.16e networks as the reporter says only two WiMax licenses are available in the UK, which would likely refer to specific frequencies that carriers would want to use for fixed and mobile WiMax with 802.16e. Unstrung reports that these are 3.6 GHz licenses.
Pipex had revenues of nearly £102m last year with £7.1m in profit. This isn’t a startup, but a going concern expanding into a new arena. The Independent says that only one other license for this type of service is available and issued—to Hong Kong firm PCCW, which long ago was an investor in airport Wi-Fi.
Superb Wired News article addresses the present and future of WiMax: Joanna Glasner expertly distinguishes the kinds of WiMax coming to market in a way that mainstream business reporters have proved incapable while she still keeps the technology comprehensible to a broad audience. The article has some very reasonable quotes from cell phone technology inventor Marty Cooper, who has made broader statements in the past about Wi-Fi and WiMax.
Glasner notes one of the biggest current drawbacks to fixed WiMax, which is that most of the companies who are early out of the gate are startups, and thus have little track record (although often great executive and engineering pedigrees), and have new, unproven equipment.
Now, I’ve asked a question of every startup that’s tried to explain to me over the last few years how carriers will buy their equipment: Tell me why carriers will purchase something from you when they typically require multiple bidders with interoperable devices? I get hemming and hawing and descriptions of potential deals, and then those companies disappear or change market segments.
Sprint will use Samsung equipment: The tests will be in the 2.5 GHz band, a band which the combined Sprint-Nextel merged entity owns a large majority of in the U.S. This pre-standard testing of mobile WiMax may not yield practical results for a year or more. Still, it could allow Sprint to offer dramatically higher speeds than competitors because of the larger spectrum slices they possess. (Meanwhile, the FCC has proposed reorganizing that entire band, but that seems in abeyance at the moment, and might have been a Powell project.)