Crunch time for WiMax

Few subjects today polarise opinions in communications technology circles as much as WiMax – the emerging option for long-range, wireless broadband.

Even for a sector famed for its hyperbole, the superlatives lavished on WiMax by its supporters seem excessive. To them it’s “the emerging hyper-connectivity megatrend”; it is supposedly going to initiate a “total transformation in wireless broadband communications”.

Not everyone, however, is so enamoured – or convinced the technology is practical. “Overall, the problem for the WiMax market is caused by near-term inflated expectations by its backers,” notes Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. The reality behind the technology is very different: WiMax is at a turning point that will determine whether it will struggle forward as a niche proposition with little commercial impact or set in motion a comms revolution.

One of its biggest backers, Intel, remains confident that its huge investment in WiMax will be vindicated. Intel is willing to turn down the cheerleading and provide a little more perspective about the technology’s prospects.

A couple of years ago, there were legitimate questions over whether WiMax would ever be a commercial proposition, admits Chris Beardsmore, WiMax market development manager at Intel. Indeed, there are any number of high-speed connectivity standards competing to become the dominant wireless technology of tomorrow (see box).

But, as Beardsmore says: “Now the discussions around WiMax are about when [it will happen].”

Overcoming problems

Strictly speaking, fixed WiMax refers to long-range, high-bandwidth wireless technology based on the IEEE 802.16 family of standards for wireless metropolitan area networks. In many ways, it is a closer relation to mobile networking than WiFi in terms of operational range. A typical mast transmission radius might run from four to five miles if there are no buildings, trees or other non-line of sight obstacles in the way, to 10 miles for line of sight applications and up to a theoretical maximum of 30 miles.

But unlike mobile networks, WiMax proffers the advantage that it has been designed specifically for data transmission – unlike the mobile networks, which are merely ‘capable’ of handling data along with voice.

This data issue is particularly relevant. The most common mobile device today remains the cell phone, and voice still accounts for a huge chunk of the traffic sent over mobile networks. However, the creeping enthusiasm for data cards is indicative of business users’ desires for ubiquitous connectivity. Furthermore, as more voice traffic migrates to the Internet Protocol – including mobile voice traffic – the sophistication of the data-bearing network becomes more pertinent.

As Kerl Haslam, chairman of the Mobile WiMax Acceleration Group, points out, mobile connectivity is already vital to most businesses today: “WiMax enables firms to have this mobility faster, more securely and more cost-effectively than any currently available mobile technology.” He suggests that WiMax traffic works out “as little as one-tenth the costs per bit” of competing technologies.

Despite its long-range capabilities, fixed WiMax has one notable downside – namely its fixed nature. The handoff between multiple WiMax base stations is a problem: once a user moves out of range of one, their session gets dropped. To solve that problem, WiMax advocates have been working on the 802.16e-2005 standards, or so-called Mobile WiMax. While it is still some way off, proof-of-concept demonstrations for Mobile WiMax were staged at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Initial deployments of WiMax are of the fixed variety, notes Intel’s Beardsmore, but “we’re starting to see real movement in Mobile [WiMax]”.

To date, there are a smattering of WiMax sites in Europe, but the real work is under way in countries where third-generation (3G) mobile networks are immature or where the copper infrastructure for a fixed broadband network is not already in place. In early 2008, Indian state-owned telco Bharat Sanchar Nigam and broadband wireless company Soma Networks unveiled plans for a massive Mobile WiMax network covering 400 cities and 200 million people.

But what about developed countries? Is there still a role for WiMax, when there are already sophisticated, capable alternatives in place?

Howard Wilcox, an analyst with telecoms advisory group Juniper Research, certainly thinks so – even though there are a number of hurdles that WiMax has to overcome before it gets anywhere close to fulfilling a portion of its advocates’ wild claims.

Firstly, the companies wanting to offer WiMax services must get their hands on sufficient spectrum licences to make deployment feasible. Secondly, there will be no use without the manufacture and availability of WiMax-enabled devices – laptops, PDAs and so on.

Up for auction

The prospects for WiMax picked up significantly in 2007, when the United Nations-backed International Telecommunication Union (ITU) agreed that WiMax could be included in its IMT-2000 set of standards. Effectively, WiMax had become part of the 3G family, even if it remains something of a black sheep.

This helped diffuse some of mobile operators’ biggest concerns over WiMax – some that had paid billions for 3G licences had been staunchly opposed to WiMax. But, as Wilcox notes: “Most people [now] see WiMax as complementing, not competing with, 3G services.” For example, mobile operator Vodafone, once a seemingly implacable opponent of WiMax, has launched its own WiMax service on the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Whether the ITU decision now paves the way for the development of commercial WiMax services in the UK remains to be seen. The first big test is likely to take place in the spring. In May 2008, the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom will kick off its auctions for 192 MHz of spectrum around the 2.6 GHz frequency.

That auction is likely to attract companies whether they are looking to build WiMax networks or expand existing 3G networks – moving towards so-called ‘4G services’, whatever they may be. It could also reopen old rivalries, suggests Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. (Fundamentally, WiMax is just one of a number of technologies that promise to provide high-speed wireless connectivity, along with WiFi, and 3G and 4G mobile networks – although it is fair to say that the distinctions between 3G, 4G and WiMax have become increasingly blurred.)

The ITU endorsement ensured that, for forthcoming auctions around the 2.5 GHz frequency, time division duplex (TDD) technologies such as WiMax would be designated the middle of the band, while two paired frequencies would be allocated for frequency division duplex (FDD) technologies – such as traditional UMTS 3G mobile networks.

There was a widespread expectation that mobile operators would be able to cherry-pick the prime bits of available spectrum, while WiMax operators would be limited to bidding for parts reserved for TDD technologies.

However, some members of the WiMax Forum now claim that an FDD profile for Mobile WiMax will be ready imminently. This appears to pitch Mobile WiMax “head-on against HSPA, EVDO, LTE, etc in the 2.5 GHz band,” says Bubley (see box).

Thus far, it is not yet clear whether an FDD flavour of WiMax represents a breakthrough, or whether it will simply force regulators such as Ofcom to rethink their auction rules.

The other stumbling block for WiMax is devices. The situation is somewhat confused by the different approaches being taken in different locations. For example, electronics giant Samsung is already going to market with a range of WiMax-enabled smartphones, laptops and tablet PCs – but thus far these are aimed solely at the South Korean market. Elsewhere, there is a great deal more uncertainty about what devices will be available and when.

For the most part, WiMax enthusiasts predict that devices will become widely available in the second half of the year. For Motorola, those devices are mobile handsets and smartphones. Andy McKinnon, WiMax principal at Motorola, talks of WiMax solely in terms of telephony. He envisages WiMax as being “a backbone for businesses to manage call flows” – a sort of souped-up version of fixed-mobile convergence that will allow users to switch seamlessly from an office call to one routed over a WiMax network.

Elsewhere, Intel’s Beardsmore talks of integrated WiFi and WiMax chipsets being on target for production by the middle of 2008. Meanwhile, Juniper Research’s Wilcox suggests that WiMax-enabled data cards or USB dongles are likely to make an impact first.

All this seems to be coming together simultaneously, but the timeline is tight, and the fact that there is still disagreement over the killer apps or devices among its strongest supporters, raises some doubts.

Gartner’s Dulaney suggests that CIOs and IT directors should continue to approach WiMax with caution. WiMax-enabled laptops are nice to have, but if there is a premium to pay, they can only be justified for select users, where mobile connectivity is essential, he says. Similarly, WiMax phones should be evaluated on what other technologies are bundled in, he adds; essentially WiMax will be a nice – but not necessary – added extra.

That is exacerbated by further uncertainties surrounding WiMax and other high-speed wireless technologies. The variety of handsets and connection methods across the mobile estate is already outpacing the maturity of mobile management software, says Benjamin Gray, an analyst with Forrester Research. It is now necessary for ICT decision-makers to “standardise mobile infrastructure before it gets out of hand”, he adds.

Given such pressures, WiMax will need to prove its compelling characteristics soon – or find its clear potential left unexploited and its name more associated with hype than substance.

WiMax factors: The competition

WIFI This popular short-range wireless broadband technology may not have the range of WiMax, but it already has a huge number of users. While several local government-backed attempts to build metropolitan WiFi clouds have floundered, other innovations are taking place. In December, pilgrims at Mecca for the annual Hajj were given free WiFi access via a mesh network. Such mesh networks are ideal for temporary deployments because they require fewer fixed-line connections than traditional WiFi clouds and are well suited to the type of isolated far-reaching locations that WiMax is aimed at.

HSPA High-speed packet access is a collection of mobile telephony protocols that upgrade 3G networks (often termed 3.5G), improving the utilisation of bandwidth and providing faster upload and download speeds. It is already widely deployed. An upgrade to HSPA – sometimes called HSPA Evolution or HSPA+ provides an easy upgrade path for current HSPA operators, with download speeds of up to 28Mbps.

LONG-TERM EVOLUTION (LTE) Refers to a project within the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to deliver next-generation mobile networks. It has been seen as the natural choice for today’s mobile operators, and assumes a full IP network architecture, where voice traffic would be carried via data packets.

The key benefit of LTE is that it promises to be the most cost-effective way for today’s mobile operators to move beyond 3G systems, with download speeds potentially in the 100Mbps range. The first deployments of LTE technologies could be seen as early as 2009.

IEEE 802.20 A mobile broadband specification being developed by the IEEE that potentially provides peak data rates of over 100Mbps. However, with many of today’s vendors focused on WiMax, LTE, etc, it is not yet clear whether this is sufficient support to make the technology viable.

Further reading

Cisco buys into WiMax

WiMax gets US-wide boost

Crosstown traffic Three competing technologies promise to bring metropolitan wireless broadband services to all.

Find more stories in the Communications and Networking Briefing Room

Henry Catchpole

Henry Catchpole runs Inform Direct, a company records management software company which simplifies the process of dealing with Companies House. The business was set up in 2013.

Related Topics