When Google finds 11,500,000 English pages from a search, as it does for WiMAX, it's clear the subject is getting lots of attention. If anyone doubted it, the reality was reinforced by both the number of attendees at the recent WiMAX World conference--over 2600--and the level of enthusiasm they showed. Part of this is the WiMAX promotion machine in high gear, part the realization that broadband wireless might well be "The Next Big Thing."
Target: High Mobility/High Bandwidth
In his opening "State of the Industry" talk, conference co-chair Berge Ayvazian of the Yankee Group highlighted the mobile broadband "sweet spot"--both high bandwidth and high mobility. Often depicted as the upper right quadrant in a "speed versus mobility" chart (you've likely seen some version), it is the target most players are aiming at.
In discussing various groups of players on the WiMAX market positioning chart, Berge introduced a new name--"Rabbits"--for those companies who may not have much presence in broadband wireless today, but may be nimble and unpredictable enough to have a major impact. Google could be one of those players. Others going at the "upper right quadrant target" include municipalities, innovative challengers like Clearwire and some of today's established mobile operators.
A Piece of the Puzzle
Conference attendees who were not that familiar with WiMAX probably took away the message that "WiMAX is great and will be the next big thing". Those with deeper background may have heard the more nuanced message Berge and others tried to share: there are multiple solutions for broadband wireless and to a large extent they can be complementary and not competitive. Wi-Fi, WiMAX and 3G can all become part of an overall architecture and "the deficiencies of one are the advantages of another". One speaker characterized the approach as "always best connected" as have others before.
Beyond those possibilities for broadband wireless, we were reminded that WiMAX is not the only technology aiming at the "sweet spot". Companies like Qualcomm (which recently bought Flarion) and IPWireless with UMTS TDD have other solutions which have gained adoptions and are possible alternatives to WiMAX. Since this was a WiMAX conference, it was no surprise that conference speakers thought WiMAX would be one of the winning solutions if not the only possible solution.
Indeed, several speakers appeared to use "WiMAX" as a generic term for mobile broadband in the same way "kleenex" is often used as a generic term for "tissue." Many companies used to describe their technologies as "pre-WiMAX". We prefer to assume good intentions and credit them for carelessly dropping the "pre". A less kind interpretation is that some are trying to make their product sound like something it is not.
No Monopoly on Clever Techniques
In a session on the "Evolution of Mobile Wireless Broadband" Peter Rysavy pointed out that WiMAX has no monopoly on the use of clever techniques for increasing rate and range. Techniques like higher order modulation, adaptive coding, MIMO, smart antennas, channel equalization and "receive diversity", which are being incorporated into mobile WiMax, are equally applicable to evolved 3G.
One industry insider told us about a recent phone discussion about "3GPP LTE TDD". He later realized how bizarre that long string of alphabet soup terminology would sound to others, while neither he or his caller blinked in saying that phrase. (Translation: 3rd Generation Partnership Project, Long Term Evolution, Time Division Duplex.)
Which WiMAX? Fixed and Mobile
While many people talk about "WiMAX" as a single thing, there are really two distinct "flavors"--Fixed WiMAX and Mobile WiMAX--each with a distinct value proposition and in different stages of development. Fixed WiMAX is an alternative to DSL and cable modems, and is viewed by many as most appropriate for countries and markets with a weak wired infrastructure. Mobile WiMAX is often viewed as complementary to wired broadband, adding mobility for people away from work and home.
Fixed WiMAX is further along. It is based on the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard (also known as 802.16d). Several companies have produced chipsets, pre-certification products are on the market and some have been deployed. The first wave of interoperability certification is winding down and certified products are expected by year end. Vendors have just completed a plugfest in Beijing and should be ready for commercial rollouts by the start of 2006.
Mobile WiMAX is based on the later 802.16e standard, which is expecting ratification and formal publication by yearend. Chips and products are being developed, but commercial certified equipment will probably not be available until 2007 and may not reach volume production until 2008.
When we talk about certification, it is easy to believe that equipment is either certified or not. As Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting pointed out in a paper distributed at the conference, "the reality is more complex. A product may be certified for only some of the functionality it supports." As an example, she points out that "WiMAX products certified in the first wave will not be certified for QoS." The bottom line is that the WiMAX Forum "is defining different system and certification profiles for classes of products that interoperate with each other..." Subsequent certification waves will include additional functionality.
Some vendors have consciously decided to skip certification for Fixed WiMAX and to put all of their development efforts into Mobile WiMAX products; Alcatel and Motorola are two examples.
Sophisticated Ecosystem Developing
One key to the success of a new technology is the development of a industry "ecosystem": a network of specialist companies developing expertise in complementary segments. A major goal of the WiMAX Forum was to develop a complete ecosystem for wireless broadband access, with specialist companies focused on driving down costs. One benefit of the high expectations around WiMAX is that this ecosystem is becoming highly developed.
Integrated Circuits--RF and Baseband
Many companies are developing WiMAX chipsets. Most specialize in the digital "baseband" portion of the standard, implementing the physical (PHY) and Media Access Control (MAC) layers. Fewer companies participate in the linear "RF" portion, which connects to the antenna(s) on one side and to the digital portion on the other. (The picture shows a Wavesat Wireless mini-PCI card. The RF portion is on the left and the baseband on the right; RF occupies more than half of the card space.)
To learn more about the RF portion, we met with Charles Harper (Executive Chairman) and Matt Pope (VP Sales and Marketing) of Sierra Monolithics. Sierra specializes in "RFICs" -- integrated circuit chips for RF (other players in this segment include RF Magic, SiGe Semiconductor and TI). Sierra supplies its Fixed WiMAX RFICs to many WiMAX vendors.
We asked where the dividing line falls between the RF and baseband chips, and Matt told us the interface is now analog--the conversion between analog and digital is on the baseband chips. He said baseband chip vendors would like to move the analog/digital conversion into the RF chip so their chips would be entirely digital--this would simplify their chip design and could improve system performance by better isolating noise. Since Sierra already makes other chips with integrated A/D and D/A conversion, he expects the next generation of Sierra WiMAX chips will include this too.
Because baseband chips are at the heart of WiMAX development, we spent considerable time meeting with WaveSat Wireless, Sequans, PicoChip and TeleCIS. The first three showed fixed WiMAX chipsets and reference designs at the show.
Frank Draper of Wavesat showed us a "dual radio" WiMAX/Wi-Fi access point based on their new Fixed WiMAX reference design. It includes two mini-PCI cards--one Wi-Fi and one WiMAX (WiMAX is the larger of the two cards in the picture). Frank said the Wi-Fi channel would be used to communicate with users and the WiMAX channel initially for backhaul -- but later as more users had WiMAX built into their PCs, the WiMAX channel could also be used for user communications.
Rupert Barnes, VP of Marketing at PicoChip, showed us their Fixed WiMAX reference design. Unlike most other chip companies, PicoChip specializes in software-based radios. Rupert said this board will support Fixed WiMAX today, and can be re-programmed to support Mobile WiMAX when needed later.
We talked with Dave Sumi of TeleCIS about the recent announcement of an agreement between ArrayComm and TeleCIS--another example of the cooperative relationships that are growing out of individual vendor areas of expertise. ArrayComm has extensive experience in smart antenna technology (and previously announced a similar arrangement with Intel). TeleCIS develops multi-protocol BWA chips. The joint development agreement will leverage each company’s expertise to create products for Mobile WiMAX.
Then There’s WiBro
In a conference presentation, Dr. Joseph Ko of Korea Telecom discussed the status of the WiBro project. To clarify misunderstandings about the relationship between WiBro and WiMAX, he said "WiBro is the Korean version of mobile WiMAX" and is based on the same 802.16e standard. KT is working with Samsung Electronics; Samsung recently introduced a WiBro phone which will be part of KT's demonstration of the technology at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation IT summit and exhibition in Pusan, Korea. KT's demonstration will include numerous WiBro base stations and repeaters, and will show mobile hand-off capabilities. The carrier plans to launch commercial WiBro service in Seoul by April, 2006.
Although WiBro is intended for Korea, Samsung announced in September that it had agreed to test Wibro systems and devices jointly with Sprint-Nextel and provide a pilot service to carry out field tests and compatibility with Sprint data networks. Intel and Nortel also have an agreement for Korean cooperation--this one with LG Electronics on WiMAX-WiBro compatibility.
When Will We See Mobile WiMAX?
Fixed WiMAX is moving along quickly, and in 2006 we will see many deployments based on certified products. Mobile WiMAX is a different story. Although the standard is complete and will be published by yearend, the path to deployment is rather hazy.
The key issue is the profiles. A "profile" defines one specific implementation of a complex standard: what frequency bands are used, the channelization of those bands, the forms of modulation, etc. Interoperability certification is for a specific profile, not for the standard itself.
Unlike other IEEE standards, the Fixed WiMAX 802.16-2004 standard included a set of profiles. The new 802.16e standard does not include any profiles. This is a cause of great concern to some key members of the WiMAX technical community.
From discussions with many WiMAX insiders, we understand an intensive debate is under way about the appropriate profiles for Mobile WiMAX; one said he'd heard more then twenty profiles were under consideration. This is not taking place in the open through the IEEE standards process, but rather behind closed doors at the WiMAX Forum.
We also heard from many vendors that Mobile WiMAX and Fixed WiMAX are incompatible--base stations and client devices will only support one or the other. This is quite distressing and goes against the original plan for Mobile WiMAX. Several said some service providers felt they could come to market more quickly with profiles based partly on elements of Fixed WiMAX that don't appear in the Mobile WiMAX standard.
Why is this important? Having a different Fixed WiMAX profile in different places is not a serious problem--customers will typically use such a service in one building or in several places in one city.
But Mobile WiMAX is different -- by definition, customers are carrying devices around from city to city and from country to country. They would reasonably expect to be able to buy mobile devices that will work wherever to choose to go. We're hopeful the smart folks involved in WiMAX will find a way to fulfill this promise.
All this suggests that the development and certification schedules we heard for Mobile WiMAX were probably overly optimistic. While some say we'll see certified products by the end of 2006, we believe 2007 is more likely.
Although some conference speakers delivered the usual WiMAX hype, we heard reality creeping in with more nuanced discussions about the role of WiMAX. Our takeaways were:
For More Information
( www.google.com ) ( www.wimaxworld.com ) ( www.yankeegroup.com ) ( www.clearwire.com ) ( www.qualcomm.com ) ( www.flarion.com ) ( www.ipwireless.com ) ( www.rysavy.com ) ( www.senza-fili.com ) ( www.alcatel.com ) ( www.motorola.com ) ( www.wavesat.com ) ( www.monolithics.com ) ( www.rfmagic.com ) ( www.sige.com ) ( www.ti.com ) ( www.sequans.com ) ( www.picochip.com ) ( www.telecis.com ) ( www.arraycomm.com ) ( www.intel.com ) ( www.kt.co.kr/kthome/eng/index.jsp ) ( www.samsung.com )