New WiMAX products raise the stakes

Looking around the exhibit hall floor at this year’s WiMAX World conference, you could see something new. Products. Lots of them.

“There are dozens of products on the floor,” said Craig Mathias, principal of the Farpoint Group, a wireless consulting firm. “WiMAX is much more real this year. There’s a lot more confidence that WiMAX can do what its proponents claim,” he said.

There’s also a lot more being claimed, partly because of this surge in products. This year, in keynote addresses and panels, WiMAX promoters more explicitly challenged cellular operators for the future of digital, all-IP, mobile broadband networks.

The two rival cellular standards are Long Term Evolution (LTE), which is guided by the 3G Partnership Project for Wideband Code Division Multiple Access networks, and CDMA1x EV-DO Revision C, guided by 3GPP2, a sister to the 3GPP, and championed by Qualcomm.

“We can deliver one-tenth the cost per bit of 3G operators today,” said Bruce Gustafson, director of marketing for WiMAX at Nortel, which demonstrated its first mobile WiMAX infrastructure products. “That makes for a pretty compelling business case for an operator. If WiMAX vendors can deliver more performance at less cost, then the [cellular] operators will have to respond.”

The three technologies have much in common: they’re IP-based, support the orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) modulation scheme for more efficient use of the radio spectrum, use multiple input multiple output (MIMO) to boost throughput and range, and include smart antenna technology.

WiMAX is the industry implementation of two IEEE standards for broadband wireless: 802.16d for fixed and 802.16e for mobile. The latter, when fully implemented and certified in about mid-2007, will incorporate MIMO and smart antennas to support two-way, multigigabit wireless connections even to fast-moving vehicles.

Proponents were not shy about drawing the conclusions of WiMAX’s more efficient spectrum use, and the fact that its core silicon benefits from Moore’s Law — steady and significant improvements in price performance year after year.

“WiMAX is not a replacement for cellular voice,” said Ron Resnick, formerly with Intel and now president and chairman of the WiMAX Forum, addressing attendees. “It’s a 4G data service that complements 3G voice and data services.”

Despite that disclaimer, the rest of Resnick’s keynote speech made it clear that WiMAX has the bandwidth and cost advantages to attempt to displace both over the long term.

“Mobile WiMAX is out today,” he said. “It does what LTE promises to do two to three years down the road.”

Resnick also revealed that the WiMAX Forum has launched a working group to define and coordinate national and international roaming agreements among service providers. The forum will act as an intermediary to set up these deals, he said. As WiMAX-based 4G services are rolled out, subscribers won’t be limited by their providers’ footprints.

“WiMAX really is data and voice, and video downloads,” Farpoint’s Mathias said. “WiMAX will work great in that environment. But so will LTE, and [cellular operators] have a very large installed base.”

That was a point echoed by Ronny Haraldsvik, Qualcomm’s vice-president of marketing for mobile broadband, who spoke at a panel comparing WiMAX and 3G. After he introduced himself, he jokingly said, “Don’t shoot me.”

“Learn from 3G’s mistakes,” Haraldsvik said. “It overpromised [benefits] and is only now delivering. Let’s just wait and see how [mobile WiMAX] works, rather than waging this PowerPoint war.”

Haraldsvik acknowledged, however, that mobile WiMAX is forcing the cellular industry to address the 4G future more urgently.

Qualcomm will be a player in the WiMAX arena. Through its acquisition of Flarion, Qualcomm owns hundreds of OFDM patents. Earlier this year, WiMAX base station vendor Soma Networks became the first to sign a licensing deal with Qualcomm. It will not be the last.

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