The Wireless Communications Association held its annual winter conference and exhibition ( www.wcai.com/event/05/ts11gen.htm ) in San Jose. We went to some of the sessions which were interesting and visited some exhibits. But the greatest value of a show like this is that it gathers together all the really key players at one time and place, so you can meet with them privately and learn what's really going on.
We were especially interested in learning more about the emerging 802.16e standard, also called "Mobile WiMAX". We had heard about the Korean "WiBro" effort and wondered about its effect on WiMAX.
At the show, we met with industry leaders including
WiMAX Fixed/Mobile compatibility
From our discussions with these and others at WCA, we learned of a debate in the 802.16e standards group regarding back-compatibility of "mobile WiMAX" with fixed WiMAX. One faction feels the group should fulfill its original objective "to support combined fixed and mobile operation within a single system". Many supporters of this position have already designed fixed WiMAX systems with provisions for supporting combined fixed and mobile operation.
The other faction would like to move ahead faster with mobile WiMAX and would not like mobile systems to be burdened with support for fixed operation. Most advocates of this position do not have fixed products available and want to move directly to mobile systems without fixed support.
This debate appears to have slowed down the standards process, which until recently was staying very close to its planned schedule. Most people we talked with think this issue will be resolved soon and the standard will be completed by this summer.
WiBro in Korea
We heard a lot about the impact of the Korean WiBro project on this debate. As many of our readers know, the Korean broadband market is the world's most advanced, with the highest household penetration of fixed broadband and the first to roll out 3G wireless. The government has long seen a gap between wireless broadband services available from hot spots and 3G; it has aimed to fill that gap with what it previously called "portable Internet" and renamed "WiBro" for "wireless Broadband". [Editorial note: We may have been the first to suggest the term "WiBro" in an article in this newsletter (BBHR 5/17/2003) ( www.broadbandhomecentral.com/report/backissues/Report0305_6.html ).]
The Korean group planning what became WiBro first considered other alternatives, then decided last year to base WiBro on the same IEEE 802.16 standards that form the basis for WiMAX. Later they announced a schedule for technical testing by the end of 2005 with commercial operation by 2Q06, indicating they would follow the current draft of 802.16e rather than waiting for resolution of the 802.16e debate.
This schedule has changed the "mobile WiMAX" dynamic. The Koreans are not interested in fixed WiMAX -- they already have the highest household broadband penetration in the world. Many wireless broadband companies are now focusing their attention on meeting the needs of the Korean WiBro market. At WCA we were told "Wibro is now driving everyone's roadmaps. They're going to announce licenses without waiting for 802.16e, and they're going to stick to the schedule for commercial service."
After hearing this at WCA, it was no surprise that on January 20, the Korean government announced the award of licenses for WiBro services to three major Korean companies, who are expected to begin commercial service in 2006.
So the WiMAX world seems to be bifurcating. One group is focused on fixed WiMAX based on the 802.16-2004 standards, working toward WiMAX certification later this year. The other group is focusing on WiBro for now, and will turn its attention to mobile WiMAX once 802.16e has resolved its issues.
For those (like us) who see mobile WiMAX as most important--especially in well-developed broadband markets, the WiBro effort is probably a good thing. It moves mobile broadband to the front burner now, and focuses the industry innovators on getting products developed and rolled out in customer hands. Mobile WiMAX should benefit from the field experience with WiBro. And consumer devices should come down the cost curve faster with the volumes expected from the highly-competitive Korean market.