WiMAX: The Hype and the Promise Legions of WiMAX critics believe that the fixed wireless format is the biggest load of hype since the 500-channel universe and that mobile WiMAX only compounds that propaganda like the daily vig from a mob loan.

Even WiMAX proponents agree that some of the benefits surrounding the mobile broadband technology have been overblown. No one, they point out, is going to be working on a laptop or a PDA while speeding down the Schuylkill Expressway. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of things that will soon benefit from a technology that promises more throughput than cellular and better coverage than Wi-Fi with a touch of mobility.

It all depends on spectrum and who has it. Early WiMAX – fixed and portable – has focused on the 3.5 GHz bands that are available just about everywhere in the world but the United States. Mobile WiMAX is hitting closer to home with work in the 2.5 GHz spectrum – most of which is owned and operated by Sprint Nextel and Clearwire.

The WiMAX Forum, which is driving WiMAX interoperability once the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has codified specifications in its 802.16 efforts, is certifying what works in that 2.5 GHz spectrum and following instructions from Sprint Nextel about smart antennas and multiple in/multiple out (MIMO) connections. Coming soon "That certification is going to be targeted for the end of this year," says Mohammad Shakouri, vice president of marketing at Alvarion, a WiMAX vendor and a board member of the wireless forum. "There have been at least five to seven companies who have announced products, so I would say we are close. A lot of money has gone into chipset development, but more importantly we have a lot of terminal devices coming into play."

WiMAX is coming in through the back door. Usually service providers build infrastructure, and vendors and chipmakers build devices that run on that infrastructure. WiMAX, following the lead of the popular Wi-Fi model, is being peppered with devices while providers scramble to take care of the infrastructure.

"The challenge is, there isn’t that much spectrum available for multiple operators," says Shakouri. "There’s a few that have 2.5 [GHz] spectrum, and they can use it, but potentially there needs to be additional spectrum in the U.S. to open up more applications."

WiMAX can and will be a complementary high capacity data pipe for traditional cellular carriers because it can cover large swaths of territory. It won’t – in its fixed or portable format – threaten established wireline digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable modem data plays. But the pot stirs when cable’s joint venture partner, Sprint Nextel, starts driving the U.S. mobile WiMAX effort for high throughput services like cable TV programming via mobile devices.

"Sprint has announced that they’re going to do it in the 2008 timeframe with about 100 million POPs (points of presence) covered," says Sriram Viswanathan, general manager of the WiMAX program office and a vice president of Intel Capital. Chipping away For Intel, that means chips ahoy, and the silicon vendor is ready to march in step with the 2.5 GHz players.

"In the 2008 platform on the notebook side, we’ll have integrated Wi-Fi plus WiMAX, so there will be millions of devices capable of connecting to a WiMAX network," says Viswanathan.

It would then be cool to own a WiMAX network to tap all those devices. Cable has a foot partly in the door through the JV with Sprint. But that approach has limits. "You’re reselling somebody else’s service, vs. owning it on your own," he says. "I would understand the motivation for why Comcast or somebody else would want to go build it on their own."

That may happen via the swath of 1.7 GHz spectrum that a consortium of cable players acquired ostensibly for mobile wireless.

"The spectrum at 1.7 [GHz] could potentially be used for WiMAX; it has not been pushed so far," says Shakouri. "They’re analyzing it, talking, but nobody has made a formal move so that it becomes an official profile and (so that) products from WiMAX can support it."

An even bigger question mark with even bigger potential is the chunk of 700 MHz spectrum that broadcasters will abandon in 2009 when they turn all-digital.

"One of the value propositions of 700 [MHz] could be the rural market because 700 [MHz] has such a long reach, and you don’t have as much capacity," Shakouri says. "We think a lot of operators can get at least 20 to 30 MHz of the spectrum, so they can do something realistic in terms of broadband. It’s good spectrum."

When it comes to WiMAX, there really is no such thing as bad spectrum.

"Mobility will happen at 2.5 [GHz] and also at 700 [MHz], similar to your cell phone today, which has 800, 900 MHz, and 1.8, 1.9 GHz," he says. "The lower the frequency, the better the propagation, so you would put in less infrastructure." Open questions Or use infrastructure that’s already in place. Again, as with most things WiMAX, it’s open to conjecture. About the only sure thing about WiMAX – other than everyone thinking it’s going to be hotter than 500 channels of television – is it will complement, not compete against, existing cellular technology.

"The main potential is in portable as compared to mobile," says Shakouri. "The target is to have a user who will have a large screen device, PDA, laptop or some multi-functional and taking these things around with them. It’s not exactly that same model as cellular mobile."

Elsewhere in the world – where big bucks are being spent – WiMAX is already starting as a fixed/portable play, as nations encourage telecom providers to build infrastructure. That’s where the device makers see their first profits and, to some extent, where they expect to shake out their first products. Again, it’s a back door.

"Traditionally a regular telecom has been the developer in the U.S. and Europe, and after it’s matured, it moves to the rest of the world. Now we’re seeing that … other parts of the world have more money and investment (to put into) this area, and they will make the investment to develop infrastructure," Shakouri says. "That’s very good for the U.S."

And, for the most part, it’s good for the players who will eventually adopt WiMAX for their own business models.

"The cable industry has a certain usage model where they would benefit from WiMAX, just as the DBS (direct broadcast satellite) players could look at WiMAX technology for enabling broadband over a satellite infrastructure," says Viswanathan. "The 2.5 GHz spectrum is the one that is abundant, and Clearwire and Sprint both have that spectrum." FMC: Alive, Kicking or Neither? Fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) is the anti-Mark Twain. Reports of its life are highly exaggerated. In reality, FMC is barely breathing in service provider lab incubators as the telecommunications industry – both wireless and wireline – seeks to understand whether it’s worth the effort.

The FMC effort resembles the launch of digital TV when General Instrument and Tele-Communications Inc. tried to spur – and of course, corner – the early digital market with proprietary technology, and the other MSOs balked. The result was the MPEG specification that measurably slowed digital TV deployments but provided a standardized, nonproprietary foundation for today’s widespread services. Despite the delay, digital TV succeeded because it was something that everyone from service providers to vendors to consumers wanted.

"In some ways, (FMC) is a technology in search of a market," says Mark Kaish, vice president of voice product development and support at Cox Communications. "Right now, there’s not a compelling application or (set of) applications that would say, ‘We have to go do this.’" Who needs it? Today’s subscribers are accustomed to using their cell phones as substitute landlines and to paying prices that are reasonable enough to offset demand for moving cell minutes onto "free" home broadband networks – the keystone of fixed-mobile convergence.

Cox, like other members of the industry’s joint venture (JV) with Sprint Nextel – Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Advance/Newhouse Communications – wants a piece of the wireless action that phone companies like AT&T and Verizon hold as trump cards in a quadruple play. That’s why Cox’s initial work with Sprint has "some of the elements of FMC."

But it’s hardly a full-blown, seamless wireline-wireless network offering. "The home to wireless-cellular, cellular-wireless to home minutes are free," explains Kaish. "On your cellular phone, you can access your Cox e-mail account, and there are some basic video applications."

"It’s not anything extraordinary," he says. "It’s just dipping our toes in the water." Some lab trials As for pure FMC? "We’ve been doing some lab trials and some very small internal user trials around some over-the-top solutions," Kaish says.

Another reason FMC is developing slowly, despite public perceptions that it’s on deployment’s cusp, is that the Internet protocol (IP) Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) standard for voice and multimedia communications over packet-based IP networks – the glue that bonds fixed and mobile – is still being formulated.

IMS was originally developed by wireless providers hoping to provide wireline-like throughput capabilities and reach. That effort has "pretty much stalled … primarily because most of the IMS services available today can be deployed on an existing mobile network so they really don’t need to make the infrastructure upgrade," says Andy Huckridge, director of IMS solutions at Spirent, a testing equipment vendor and chair of the MultiService Forum interoperability working group.

The wireless players have further muddied an already cloudy IMS picture by proposing an Advanced IMS (A-IMS) initiative that rips deeply into what’s already being developed. Verizon Wireless and vendors Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies, Motorola, Nortel, and Qualcomm say they pushed A-IMS to outline standards and architectures to encourage IMS solutions, but critics maintain they just added complexity to an already overwhelmingly complex reference architecture bulging with suggestions from the wireless 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project); the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and CableLabs‘ PacketCable initiative.

The situation is so muddled and the technology so complex that the MSF, which certifies the interoperability of products, is stepping in to run pre-certification testing to get products into provider labs more quickly. That effort isn’t expected to present any interoperable technology until at least 2008 when MSF will run what it calls a Global MSF Interoperability (GMI). Industry undertaking "This is a huge undertaking by the industry to turn IMS into an honest, quantifiable approach, where testing can be done such that it really levels the field between vendors and service providers," Huckridge says. "Otherwise, every vendor in the world has to have a certification lab and go through every service provider’s lab’s certification process. That slows everything down; they don’t have the time to do that any more."

Time in this case is relative. IMS developers could have all the time they want if there’s no reason to deploy FMC.

"Everybody in the industry is trying to back-pedal right now," says Robert Johnson, a senior analyst with Venture Development Corp.’s Datacom and Telecom Practice.

Johnson is the author of a market analysis that offers an even more dire timeframe for IMS deployment than the MSF – 2010 at the earliest. By then, "full IMS deployments could be an infinitely receding opportunity," the report says, with Johnson adding, "I just think people are not ready to step up to this yet. I think a lot of it is just inertia right now."

That inertia is complicated by confusion over who will spearhead the platform: the vendors, who want nothing more than a market for which to build equipment, or the service providers, who don’t want to build a market until they have equipment.

"If you look at the standards organizations, we did not find one service provider that was willing to accept the responsibility for systems integration," Johnson says.

This inertia is impacting both the cable industry and its vendors, says Peter Fousas, vice president of business development for Arris, which is doing "some field trials and some lab trials" with FMC. Understanding FMC "I think the MSOs would still like to get their heads around what they want and what they want to see from FMC," Fousas says. "They’re realizing that IMS is a ways out and not quite ready as quickly as they thought it was going to be."

Arris, says Fousas, isn’t surprised at how slowly IMS is developing because "the technology’s not quite there; it’s a standard, but it’s still not quite there, and they can’t seem to make sense of the business case for it."

This, of course, echoes Kaish’s assertion that FMC – the ultimate reason to develop IMS – is a concept in search of a market. Cox, like other service providers, is "doing a lot of work in IMS right now" although "there’s not a standard way to do this," he says.

Kaish has a somewhat rosier prediction for when IMS – and concurrently FMC – will happen.

"Realistically, my guess is it’s a year away at the earliest," he says. "Until you get some compelling apps that say you’re going to have to have FMC, I’m not sure were going to see much movement." Jim Barthold is a contributor to Communications Technology. Reach him at jimbarthold@comcast.net.

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