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Nancy Gohring reports from the Consumer Electronics Show that Sprint maintains all is well in WiMax deployment: The firm said to a “small audience” at CES that they are right where they said they would be from a timing perspective. The company’s CTO, Barry West, said that the firm chose mobile WiMax over CDMA due to CDMA’s higher computational cost—and thus equipment cost—when handling larger swaths of spectrum. He also reaffirmed the network’s openness: any WiMax device a consumer buys will be allowed to run on the network.
A senior VP at Motorola noted that Motorola is involved in 60 WiMax trials worldwide, and Intel’s WiMax lead also said that “WiMax is bigger than Sprint.” True, but Sprint and Clearwire have the most scale committed anywhere in the world, and most of the rest of the world is involved in trials, not committed deployments. If they can’t build it here, they may not be able to build it anywhere, and the fortunes of several companies tumble alongside.
Clearwire launched its Seattle mobile WiMax-like service with a laser light show on the Space Needle: Tricia Duryee of The Seattle Times reminds us all that in May 2005, the national ISP based in Seattle, Speakeasy Networks, launched its fixed WiMax (pre-WiMax, really) with a climbing expedition on the exterior of the famous structure by company head Bruce Chatterly.
A year later, and the pre-WiMax is post-WiMax. Duryee reports that while the Speakeasy launch was hailed as an early win for fixed WiMax, and was apparently one of the largest of its kind in the US—other similar technology wasn’t quite as related to WiMax or used a somewhat different approach—it’s no longer in service. Speakeasy was pushing its service as an alternative to wireline T-1, with more flexibility, such as up to a total of 8 Mbps to play with, which could be configured as 6 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up; 3 Mbps service offerings that would be cheaper and simpler than two T-1s; and very short-term installations, like within a day or two of initiation. Sounds like it didn’t gain traction as an offering as DSL and cable firms starting rolling out 5 and 6 Mbps services, and even much faster ones that were not readily available with business-grade service agreements when Speakeasy was planning their offering.
Intel had put money into Speakeasy to promote its WiMax line, but fixed WiMax has dimmed for Intel while mobile WiMax has had its profile raised. Mobile WiMax is just an element of 802.16-2005, and the WiMax Forum will have fixed, nomadic, and mobile profiles. While fixed WiMax (usually meaning 802.16-2004) has dropped in price and is now apparently widely deployed, a lot of future fixed deployments are anticipated to be using the so-called mobile WiMax base stations.
(Clearwire’s rollout uses older NextNet technology that has similarities to mobile WiMax; the company has stated when it will move to mobile WiMax, but it’s an inevitable transition, likely when Motorola, which bought NextNet, Intel, and Samsung release a first real generation of US-focused mobile WiMax gear in fall 2007.)
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.
They said it, so I don’t have to: The very funny, very snarky folks at TechDirt expose the latest in marketing hype, decrying Beceem Communications for labeling a product as mobile WiMaX. Derek Keaton points out that the standard isn’t settled, with important issues up in the air, thus there’s no way to declare something as supporting mobile WiMax. While 802.16e is finished, there’s so much more to a standard than complying to a published industry specification, as numerous plugfests, certification labs, and firmware updates should testify to.
Beceem told Ephraim Schwartz at InfoWorld, “We guarantee it will be fully profile-compliant.” Schwartz also notes that a mobile WiMax radio is all well and good, but you need a network (and base stations) before you can do anything with it.
The basis for what will be mobile WiMax was approved by the IEEE today: Om Malik notes that with the standard done, the hard part is developing hardware and replicating cellular infrastructure. As Jeffrey Belk of Qualcomm wrote in a white paper a few weeks ago, the many challenges that face rolling out 3G cellular networks, from spectrum availability to real-estate rights for transmitters, equally apply to mobile WiMax. Add to that, that it’s a new standard without the real-world evolution that’s happened in the cell world, and there’s going to be a long lag between today and real, functioning, interoperable mobile WiMax equipment.
Over the next two to three years, however, we’ll be reading stories every week in the mainstream press that continue to conflate the abilities of fixed WiMax—something cell carriers are tremendously interested in for licensed use to backhaul tower traffic—and mobile WiMax. Fixed WiMax doesn’t operate in moving vehicles dozens of miles from a base station running at 72 Mbps. It can run fast, far, and mostly static, and not all three: you get fast when you’re close up and slow when you’re far away.
TechDirt is saying it will be 2008 before we see anything resembling real mobile WiMax given the timetable that took fixed WiMax from 802.16 standards work to a ratified proposal to the very first stages of certification that don’t offer real interoperable benefits today.
The WiMax Forum claims 150 WiMax (really pre-WiMax) networks have been deployed worldwide: This includes pilot and commercial rollouts. The article notes that certified products from the first testing are expected to appear next year—which is odd, given that some companies were predicting last month that certified labels would be applied in November.
The article also notes that a plugfest for informal interoperability testing in China on the 3.5 GHz band (not yet available in the U.S. for this purpose) saw 2.8 Mbps to 7.2 Mbps throughput ranges. No word on how many devices worked with other devices.
Redline, IBM, and TowerStream are demonstrating a broadband network at Supercomm: The problem is, they are claiming this is the “world’s first live, ‘over the air’ demonstration of equipment that is compliant to the IEE 802.16-2004 standard.” It’s unclear to me what these companies are claiming is a “first” here. Certainly not that they are demonstrating IEEE 802.16-2004 compliant equipment. Since no one has claimed the authority to check whether a piece of equipment is compliant to the 802.16-2004 standard, that’s not really an exciting claim. Loads of vendors have built equipment to the standard. The important piece is complying with the definition described by the WiMax Forum, which has yet to officially certify anything.
With that potential “first” out of the way, I’m baffled about the claim. The demonstration will stream video feeds from cameras on a building. I sincerely doubt this will be the first time someone has streamed live video over broadband wireless equipment.
Not only have there been countless demonstrations of gear that is to be submitted for WiMax certification, there are also plenty of live networks using such gear. Looks like typical trade show hype.
Intel’s chief called DSL and cable “half-assed,” over-promising WiMax: He told a Reuters reporter that WiMax will deliver 10 Mbps throughput for home users. Maybe he’ll be able to afford that in his home. Currently, that kind of throughput over a wireless connection would price the vast majority of residents out of the market. Speakeasy, which just launched a broadband wireless offering in Seattle, is targeting businesses with an aggregated 6 Mbps service for $800 per month. Towerstream, which offers broadband wireless services in several U.S. cities, offers businesses a 5 Mbps service for $500 per month. In many years his vision may come to fruition, when the cost of equipment drops and the capability improves to increase bandwidth. But with first generation services, operators won’t be able to afford to offer anything like 10 Mbps at a price comparable to DSL or cable.
Intel is again pushing unreal timeframes and generalities about WiMax: Intel is saying that 802.16e will arrive shortly. The standard isn’t even complete so shortly is pretty far from the truth. Intel is also saying that WiMax-capable laptops will be available next year, a time frame that also sounds wishful to me.
But Sean Maloney’s statements about 3G are comical. He says that 3G is a fragmented technology with no global standard. In fact, 3G has two global standards and a fairly unified spectrum position. Talk about fragmented—the closest thing that WiMax will have in the short term to a single implementation is networks that operate in the 3.5 GHz band, a spectrum that is spottily available around the globe. Often, different spectrum bands will require different so-called WiMax profiles, which may not be interoperable. There is activity now to try to free up 2.5 GHz in many parts of the world for a more unified WiMax approach, but that initiative is in quite early days and because it involves regulators around the world is likely to take a very long time to get in order. The WiMax market is incredibly fragmented because there is no unified spectrum approach to it on a global basis.
That’s not to say that the standard doesn’t have worth. Vendors will be able to cut their costs by using many of the same components for equipment that operates in different bands. However, it’s like the pot calling the kettle black for Maloney to diss 3G for being fragmented.
While there are plenty of factual errors in this piece, the author comes to a possibly accurate conclusion: To start with some of the errors, WiMax isn’t actually “here” yet. Equipment that is likely to pass WiMax certification is available, but nothing has been certified. That means that no one is really yet benefiting from economies of scale or interoperability. Also, WiMax doesn’t only use unlicensed frequencies. In fact, in Europe it is most likely to be used in the licensed bands. In the U.S., it could be used in the MMDS band.
But beyond the factual mistakes, the conclusion in this article may be correct. WiMax is likely to become a great lower-cost connectivity option for small businesses. It’s also likely to be used by small to medium-sized operators and even large operators, though potentially in a limited fashion.
But the vision of WiMax as a mobile solution is indeed quite far off. One challenge that I don’t think gets much attention is that operators that deploy fixed WiMax networks won’t have an easy transition to a mobile offering—and that’s if they are even interested in a mobile solution. The networks they build now won’t be architected for mobility so the evolution to mobility involves a new network plan, not just an upgrade of base stations. Also, in the meantime, other technologies are moving full steam ahead to offer mobile broadband, including the ever evolving 3G and potentially technologies like Flarion’s and IPWireless’. That means that when mobile WiMax arrives, the market may have changed enough to make it irrelevant.
Techdirt points to some stretching of reality done by Intel’s Sean Maloney at the recent Intel’s Developers Forum: Oddly, Maloney seems to have been advocating the use of a single antenna to cover an entire city. The last time operators tried to roll out network sin the MMDS spectrum it became clear that even in the flattest of environments, customers would eat up the available bandwidth from a single base station pretty quickly. He is also quoted as saying that coverage is far more important than bandwidth. If that were true, we’d have no need for WiMax because we’d just use GPRS.
Maloney is also cited as saying that cell phones include Wi-Fi by default these days. While several phone manufacturers have announced plans to start selling cell phones that include Wi-Fi, they all haven’t and they haven’t said that they intend to include Wi-Fi as a rule.
As much as Intel tries to deflect the blame for WiMax hype growing out of control, when its spokespeople make these kinds of comments it is only fanning the fire, especially when these kinds of comments are picked up by the mainstream press that may not have enough background on the subject to separate fact from fiction.