WiMax catches attention of carriers

As this year began with the certification of the first WiMAX broadband wireless products, the emerging standard’s role in wireless broadband communications began to take shape. Telecommunications carriers have started moving to implement WiMAX for fixed wireless broadband. Truly mobile services are still a couple of years off.

WiMAX is the popular name for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) 802.16 wireless standards. It will have several versions, starting with 802.16-2004, which is meant for devices that communicate only while standing still, though they can be moved from place to place – a distinction the industry refers to as nomadic rather than mobile.

Truly mobile WiMAX service must wait for 802.16e, a version of the standard that was ratified in December but is not yet supported by certified products. It will be able to support mobile devices in moving vehicles and handoff between access points within the wireless network.

WiMAX will find its place first as an alternative to wired broadband services for home and small-business data services. “Once you can get this WiMAX technology sorted out, it becomes a very attractive alternative to wired modems in the home,” says Jon Arnold, an independent telecommunications consultant in Toronto.

Last September, Bell Canada and Rogers Communications Inc. announced a joint venture to build a cross-Canada broadband wireless network. Dubbed Inukshuk Internet Inc., the company was built on an existing joint venture of the same name, in which both companies had indirect interests. Inukshuk plans to roll out wireless broadband to some 40 cities and 50 rural areas across the country over the next three years.

Ron Close, president of Bell New Ventures, says Bell and Rogers will both use Inukshuk’s network to offer high-speed data services. The wireless network will offer services in some areas not covered by Bell’s digital subscriber line (DSL) services and Rogers’ cable network, he says, and it will offer some features those existing broadband services don’t.

Some carriers use pre-standard equipment
For instance, customers of the wireless service will be able to carry their equipment from place to place and use it anywhere the network is available. So consumers might take their broadband connections to the cottage, or business travelers might use them on the road. Close predicts the hardware will eventually be reduced to the size of a PC Card that slips into a notebook computer.

Ease of setup will also be a plus for the service, Close adds.

Though Inukshuk will use the 2.3, 2.5 and 3.5-Gigahertz licensed frequency bands, all covered by the WiMAX standard, the companies didn’t use the term WiMAX in announcing it. “We’re calling it more of a pre-WiMAX,” Close says, because the equipment is only beginning to be certified as WiMAX compliant.

That’s typical of carrier activity in this area today. Carriers are developing services based on technology that roughly fits the definition of WiMAX, says Philip Solis, senior analyst for wireless connectivity research at ABI Research Inc. in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

“As far as actual standard and certified equipment, there’s still not a lot being used by service providers today.”

Wireless technology has been used for broadband access for some time, notes Jeff Orr, director of marketing for the WiMAX Forum, a Mountain View, Calif.-based organization that develops certification tests for the WiMAX standard. The wireless broadband equipment market is worth more than US$500 million today and forecasts call for it to grow to between US$2 billion and US$6 billion over the next couple of years, Orr says. What is new, he adds, is a standard that will allow service providers to obtain equipment from multiple providers with some certainty that they will work together.

“It provides them the assurance that they’re not just locking into one vendor, who may or may not exist in the future,” Orr says.

That, Arnold says, could be a “key enabler for universal broadband.”

It certainly appeals to Chet Perry, president of Pathcom Wireless in Cochrane, Alta. Pathcom holds licenses for the 3.5-GHz spectrum in a sizeable chunk of Western Canada, and already offers fixed wireless broadband using pre-standard equipment. Perry likes the idea of standardized, interoperable equipment because it means that if his chosen manufacturer went out of business or the relationship soured, he would not be left in the lurch. And he expects standardization will help reduce equipment prices over time.

Another benefit of new WiMAX equipment will be simpler installation, Perry says. All this will add up to lower costs for customers. Pathcom has already placed orders for early WiMAX-certified gear and hopes to start installing it this spring.

The biggest markets for WiMAX are outside North America and Western Europe. Poor telecommunications infrastructure in Eastern Europe and much of Asia and Latin America means telecommunications carriers are eager to jump directly to fixed wireless broadband, says Manish Gupta, vice-president of marketing and alliances at Aperto Networks, a Milpitas, Calif., maker of WiMAX equipment for carriers.

“Right now the Middle East is our number-one highest activity,” says Keith Doucet, vice-president of marketing and product management at Markham, Ont.-based Redline Communications, one of the first vendors to have equipment certified compliant with the 802.16-2004 standard. However, Doucet says his company is involved in some WiMAX trials in Canada, and carriers are interested in both fixed and mobile versions of the technology.

Most observers see WiMAX as primarily a carrier-based service. While enterprise deployments are theoretically possible, Solis says, its use of licensed spectrum makes it a more complicated undertaking than Wi-Fi. Gupta predicts most private companies will prefer to use unlicensed wireless spectrum, but says some government organizations might use the licensed spectrum in which WiMAX operates, since they will find it easier to obtain the necessary licensing.

Mobile wimax will target the under-30 crowd
While fixed wireless will come in handy for bringing broadband to underserved areas, only 802.16e will provide true mobility. Orr says the first products certified for compliance with 802.16e should arrive around the end of this year. Of course, the widespread availability of services will depend on the carriers.

He sees teenagers and 20-somethings as prime customers for services based on this standard. That age group accounts for the largest chunk of broadband applications today, says Orr, and wants services like instant messaging, file sharing and the ability to exchange pictures and video clips wherever they are.

But anything that can be done with a wireless device within reach of a Wi-Fi hotspot today could be an application for WiMAX services in the future. WiMAX services could mean that instead of seeking out hotspot-equipped coffee shops, future road warriors might check e-mail and communicate with the office from almost anywhere – including moving vehicles.

Potential competitor to 3G
That makes WiMAX a probable competitor to third-generation cellular services and their successors, which offer mobile data services along with voice. Commentators stop short of predicting a head-on collision, but most acknowledge the two overlap. “I think in some places you’ll find it complementary, and in other places you’ll find it competing,” Orr says.

Solis agrees, saying the technologies will compete head-on for the business of carriers setting up new services, while incumbent carriers will probably tend to build on their existing investments in 3G. But he adds that with 3G technologies becoming Internet Protocol-based, they and WiMAX will also grow more and more similar over time. “Different technologies will compete,” he says, “but at the same time all these different technologies are going the same direction.”

Bruce Gustafson, director of WiMAX marketing at Nortel Networks Corp. in Richardson, Tex., says 3G technologies have a strong position in smaller devices from smart phones to personal digital assistants, while WiMAX will probably establish itself first in notebook computers and then possibly push downward into smaller devices. “There’ll be a little friction where the two business cases bump up against each other,” he predicts.

One other wild card is the IEEE 802.20 standard. While 802.16 was initially conceived as a fixed wireless standard and has evolved to include mobility, 802.20 was planned as a mobile wireless data standard from the start, Solis says.

802.20 had “pretty much died down for a while” and looked like being eclipsed by 802.16e, Solis says, until Qualcomm Inc. bought Flarion Technologies, which has been actively working on 802.20 technology. The two standards will overlap significantly, Solis says, but if 802.20 is ratified, Qualcomm and a few other companies will probably develop equipment conforming to it, which might give it a new lease on life.

Orr says only that 802.20 remains too nebulous to allow for any clear conclusions about how it fits with 802.16. In the long run, of course, few people care what the technology is called – they just want access wherever they are. That seems to be on the way.

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