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Qualcomm apparently is really out on the attack against WiMax: It’s funny though, because I wouldn’t think such a defensive mode would be necessary unless Qualcomm saw WiMax as a real potential competitor. If WiMax really is smoke and mirrors, why would Qualcomm be making such efforts to bash it?
The future widespread success of WiMax is uncertain, yet it’s hard to totally dismiss its potential. Yes, WiMax does have promise in the backhaul market, but it also holds promise for delivering access to the underserved or even to compete with DSL in some markets. There is definitely room to criticize the standardization process for WiMax and the technology has its shortcomings, but it clearly has potential.
Om Malik concludes that HSDPA will beat WiMax: While it will beat WiMax to market, HSDPA won’t take the place of WiMax. The two technologies will serve a different market. I’m in the midst of working on a story for Wireless Week about HSDPA and what I’m hearing from operators, analysts, and vendors is that operators won’t be looking to use HSDPA as a DSL or cable modem competitor. The operators are looking at HSDPA as essentially true 3G, enabling applications like video or music downloads on handheld devices. The mobile operators would have an incredibly hard time offering HSDPA at a flat rate to compete with the DSL folks—their costs, including spectrum, are just too high for them to be able to compete with the landline players.
But what HSDPA might do is relegate WiMax to mainly a fixed broadband access technology. By the time the mobile version of WiMax comes out, customers will already have been using HSDPA to access email and get online when they’re on the road. Unless a mobile WiMax can considerably beat the price of HSDPA, WiMax may have trouble competing in the mobile arena. Instead, the vast majority of the market for WiMax will be bringing broadband access to customers who don’t have access to DSL or cable modem.
I also can’t resist commenting on the quote here from Paul Jacobs of Qualcomm. Malik quotes him as saying: “WiMAX is nothing but hype. People can promise all sorts of things when you don’t have a system.” Not only are those words obviously self-serving, they’re comical if you’ve followed the development of CDMA from the very beginning. The groups supporting CDMA initially said that CDMA would offer at least ten times the capacity as the analog systems (I’ve found reports of reports stating a promised 20 times capacity increase). As operators began building their CDMA networks, that figure increasingly was lowered to six times the capacity. My point is only that Qualcomm isn’t really in the position to criticize other up-and-coming technologies.
A new working group within the International Packet Communications Consortium was formed to work on roaming among wireless and wireline networks: One goal of the group is to facilitate handover between cellular and Wi-Fi/WiMax networks. It’s not totally clear to me how this group will co-exist next to the companies that are developing the Unlicensed Mobile Access technology. This new working group seems a bit broader in focus, also including the development of methods for roaming across DSL, cable, cellular, Wi-Fi, and WiMax networks.
Unless I’m missing something, “seamless roaming” between, for example, DSL and cellular, isn’t really possible. To me seamless implies that the user doesn’t do anything. But DSL requires users to be tethered to a wire. Perhaps “seamless roaming” in this sense has more to do with backend billing and customer management than handoffs.
The convergence of mobile and Wi-Fi or WiMax networks will prove useful for enterprise users, but the process of integration must be considered: This article examines how government agencies can benefit from converged networks but concludes that network administrators will want to work with a single integrator to put a package of seamless applications together and end users won’t want to have to manage their connections.
The author also warns that while integration with WiMax networks may also be useful, WiMax operators may initially be more focused on building their market then trying to integrate with cellular operators. However, it may take several years before an integrated WiMax and cellular service is useful, given that the initial WiMax services will be fixed.
While the topic of converged Wi-Fi and cellular networks has been making headlines often recently, I suspect that one of the biggest road blocks, which I don’t think is getting enough attention, will be with the cellular operators. The only way that most of them will be interested in the convergence is if they control as much of each call from end to end as possible. That thinking might put a damper on plans enterprises might like to develop where they hope to offload some cellular traffic onto internal WLANs to cut costs.
Operators and vendors cite some more good reasons why HSDPA and WiMax really can’t compete in the eyes of mobile operators: There’s no reason why a mobile operator might not decide to deploy both, but WiMax really isn’t an option instead of HSDPA for mobile operators. One of the most important reasons, as a Siemens spokesperson notes here, is that HSDPA uses the same frequencies as the mobile operators are currently using. Plus, it’s just an upgrade for most operators while WiMax would involve building a whole new network. But WiMax could be an option for mobile operators who acquire the spectrum for it and who decide to target a slightly different market than that which HSDPA might attract.
Speakers at a conference at Harvard discussed the roles of Wi-Fi and WiMax among the cellular networks: Some of the speakers had some interesting points. One venture capitalist noted that the mobile operators are going to be very reluctant to offload traffic onto Wi-Fi networks after they spent so much on 3G licenses. Clint McLelland from Qualcomm has a good point in reply, but it’s mostly only relevant to the U.S. market. He notes that customers subscribe to flat-rate plans so if operators offload some of the traffic to Wi-Fi, it saves the operator money by freeing up the cellular network. It’s very different in Europe, however, where the vast majority of cell phone customers pay as they go rather than paying a monthly subscription. Still, regardless of how end users pay, this is where UMA comes in because the cellular operator could still control the entire call, charging the same per minute fee whether the call uses the cellular airwaves or Wi-Fi.
There are a couple of questionable comments in this story. For instance, McLelland notes that Qualcomm’s offices are already covered in Wi-Fi so even if Intel gives WiMax base stations away, it’s unlikely that companies would replace the Wi-Fi. Companies wouldn’t do that just because someone was giving away WiMax (which they won’t) but they might use WiMax because it’s easier to deploy and potentially cheaper if it requires fewer base stations.
There was one other interesting quote in this article. The president of Tropos Networks claims that despite the farther reach of a single WiMax base station, operators will need to deploy the same number of WiMax base stations as they would Wi-Fi base stations today. I find that a bit hard to believe. I would expect that operators will need more than one WiMax base station per 30 miles, as the WiMax proponents claim. But I would also expect that operators could do with fewer base stations than in Wi-Fi deployments. Tropos may have a vested interest in that comment because the company uses Wi-Fi to cover whole towns, but Tropos could also easily migrate to WiMax and make the same sort of offering so I’m not sure where he’s coming from with that comment.
Some reporters are already noting that one of the central discussions so far at the 3GSM conference surrounds technologies that will come after 3G: HSDPA, an upgrade that promises to increase throughput of UMTS networks to as fast as 1 Mbps per user, has been a hot topic in general recently. I spoke the other day with Dave Williams at O2, which claims to be building the first HSDPA network in Europe on the Isle of Man, for a story I’m writing for Wireless Week. I’ll link to it when it runs.
WiMax is certainly also being discussed as a possibility for the next step beyond 3G, but it seems to get brushed aside by the cellular operators in favor of technologies like HSDPA that were designed for the frequencies they currently use and as an upgrade rather than a full greenfield deployment.
O2 recently announced that it would build an HSDPA network on the Isle of Man: HSDPA is a 3G upgrade that promises to deliver 1 Mbps data rates. HSDPA has been the buzz among mobile operators recently and sounds to be a much simpler upgrade than the move from 2G to 3G with big promise. O2 has apparently bet against Wi-Fi but is trialing WiMax in Ireland to determine if the technology could be useful to the operator.