Politics may kill new spec

A new wireless specification, 802.20, could combine the speed of Wi-Fi access and the range of cellular networks for a rich end-user experience – if the spec survives the standards-making process.

There are no guarantees that it will. It seems 802.20 is at the centre of a political tug-of-war that could hinder its development, according to industry insiders.

The 802.20 spec promises to marry the zippy data rates of Wi-Fi and the long range of cellular networks. It’s meant to support download speeds beyond 1Mbps for users travelling at up to 250 km/h.

Mark Klerer, spokesperson for Flarion Technologies Inc. in Bedminster, N.J., said 802.20 would support useful wireless applications. Travellers on trains would receive high-speed network connections. They would access corporate intranets, download documents on the go and upload information to headquarters, as if they were stationary and plugged into the office LAN.

“You’re talking about somebody being able to go out and do insurance assessments, take pictures and send them back as he’s doing the assessment,” Klerer said. “Similarly for emergency situations, where you go into an earthquake site and send some information back in real time.”

Flarion has been working on an 802.20 variant that uses orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) to address efficiency and directional aspects of the technology.

The company helped form an 802.20 Working Group (WG) last year with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE), Klerer said. He was made the WG’s interim-chair and the process of turning 802.20 into a standard was underway.

But according to some, the standard-making process ground to a halt after the last WG meeting, held in Dallas in March. Paul Prudhomme, senior manager, product management with Navini Networks Inc. in Richardson, Tex., said he attended that gathering and witnessed something of a political coup.

Prudhomme said firms like Qualcomm Inc. came to the meeting. Qualcomm works with 3G technology – the next-generation of cellular networks. 3G is supposed to make wide-area infrastructure support data rates north of 1Mbps, just as 802.20 proposes to do.

Prudhomme, whose company floats a version of 802.20 that employs multicaster synchronous CDMA technology, said 3G interests might be jeopardized if the fledgling spec got off the ground. “Qualcomm, they have their 3G evolution business,” he said. “It’s at risk.”

Representatives of 3G-friendly firms won the chair and vice-chair positions of the WG during March elections. Klerer from Flarion lost the chairmanship to Jerry Upton, a “consultant,” according to the WG participant list. Gang Wu, a research fellow of DoCoMo Communications Laboratories Inc., took the vice-chair position.

Others who helped form the group were shut out.

“It was a chilling experience to see the people who put a year’s effort into 802.20 be voted out of the positions,” Prudhomme said.

Joanne Wilson, vice-president, standards with ArrayComm Inc., helped form the WG. She lost the election for liaison vice-chair to a representative of Lucent Technologies Inc., which sells 3G equipment.

Wilson had her suspicions about the election process, pointing out that the meeting attracted nearly 200 participants, whereas 61 attended the previous gathering in January.

“I would think any company that was interested in getting involved in the work, to understand the objectives and help shape it, would have participated in that (January) meeting,” she said.

Wilson said some firms might feel threatened by 802.20. “It shouldn’t be a threat. But…there are always going to be people who have different views of what is a threat and what is a complement.”

Prudhomme wondered if the 3G reps would leverage their powerful positions on the 802.20 WG to impede the new specification’s development. “I think the strategy would be to slow down [802.20] activity. If it slows down, that gives Qualcomm an advantage. If it accelerated very quickly, that puts Qualcomm at a disadvantage.”

Wilson said the battle for control could undermine 802.20’s chances of success. “The uncertainty over whether or not the working group will make progress, that might deter companies from bringing forward their intellectual property towards creating a new standard.”

The IEEE didn’t accept the election results due to concerns that the room was stacked in favour of 3G and other interests, Prudhomme said.

Wilson said, “My understanding is it was the concern of the sponsoring executive committee that the slate of officers didn’t have a sufficient background in 802 to be able to run a working group.”

Klerer wouldn’t talk about the WG election. Qualcomm did not respond to requests for comment. Upton referred questions to Paul Nikolich, chair of IEEE 802. Nikolich could not be reached before press time.

Regarding Prudhomme’s concern that 3G companies want to hinder 802.20’s progress, Wu from DoCoMo said that’s not the case for his firm.

“We expect the standard will specify technologies such as common radio interfaces to allow both 802.20 and 3G-based terminals to easily access each other’s base stations.…We take 802.20 not as a competitor, but as a complement to 3G.”

Michael Rozender, an industry analyst with Fox Group Consulting, headquartered in Markham, Ont., said 802.20 attracts attention because it treads on 3G’s territory, as well as ground covered by other wireless specifications, notably 802.16a, a wireless metro-area network spec that the IEEE introduced earlier this year (See Network World Canada‘s March 21 issue, “Wi-LAN goes long…”, page 17 for more information).

With various camps vying for a say in 802.20, it’s no wonder this technology appears to be at the heart of a political skirmish, Rozender said, pointing out that the battle should be interesting to watch.

“We’re going to see some significant developments, I would forecast.”