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Promises, promises

Tue, 08/31/2010 - 8:40pm
Craig Kuhl, Contributing Editor

4G, WiMAX and LTE – making and keeping them.

The promise of 4G and its anywhere, anytime mobile broadband coverage is driving carriers and their support community of technologists and manufacturers to explore the expanding universe of WiMAX, Long Term Evolution and beyond.

IntelliGoLed by Clearwire’s partnership with Cisco, Intel and three cable MSOs, the wireless universe is expanding, and literally creating a broad spectrum of services, speed and mobility that just a few years ago could only be considered science fiction.

And it’s spectrum that’s moving the needle.

“Clearwire has lots of spectrum to work with. That’s what makes them different, with at least 80 to 100 MHz or more. And they can roll out LTE on top of WiMAX, which they must be ready to do. Their focus now is expanding coverage, not capacity,” said Philip Solis, research director for mobile networks at ABI Research.

WiMAX deployment continues to trend up, with 1 billion people expected to be covered by mobile WiMAX globally in 2012, ABI reports.

No surprise there. But it’s the pace of the deployments and the growing appeal of advancing technologies and standards such as LTE as a more cost-efficient use of precious spectrum in the 4G space that is turning heads. And data is the big attraction.

“Our whole business is mobile data and an IP network for new devices based on our Clear retail brand. Now we can invite wholesale partners like cable MSOs, telecoms, wireless providers, CLECs, CE companies, even retailers,” said Teresa Elder, president of strategic partnerships and wholesale for Clearwire.

Teresa ElderThe invitations are on the way, Elder added, and include all of the above, with 4G WiMAX as the lead-edge technology. At least for now.

“WiMAX is here today, and we feel great about it. Our only challenges are to keep up with billing plans and construction projects to scale from 34 million to 120 million people and the necessary towers, equipment and activations. But when a customer goes to WiMAX service, they double their usage. We’re unleashing the freedom of a 4G, low-latency network,” she noted.

Just when Clearwire and others unleash LTE technology depends on the customers. Continued Elder: “We’re committed to WiMAX so customers don’t have to wait for LTE. But both technologies share 85 percent of their DNA. We could easily switch to LTE. We want the best speeds and performance, so we’re open to new technologies and standards like LTE.”

Investors in the Clearwire partnership such as Cox and Time Warner Cable have a growing interest in LTE, as well, with Cox testing 4G LTE technology and TWC moving deeper into the 4G, WiMAX and LTE universe.

“WiMAX and LTE have many of the same attributes, so it gets down to how the ecosystem evolves. As a strategic partner, we’ll participate with Clearwire in trials if there are products involved, but not in lab trials,” said Mike Roudi, group vice president of wireless products for TWC.

TWC’s IntelliGo, a dual-mode mobile hotspot device using Sierra Wireless’ AirCard, is the company’s 4G network entry in both residential and commercial markets. Explained Roudi: “It’s literally one-button on. If it doesn’t see a 4G connection, it connects to the 3G network. It’s a hotspot in your pocket. We’re very excited about 4G wireless. The true broadband speeds on mobile devices is phenomenal and brings the anywhere, anytime element to our business.”

So just how do WiMAX and LTE fit into the 4G space? There’s room for both, experts maintain, with only slight differences between the two. Yet there are tricky decisions to be made about both, industry experts contend.

“There are huge WiMAX deployments, and Intel has indicated it will support LTE going forward, and 4G makes sense for Clearwire. The question is how much life does WiMAX have left in it? There are discussions on merging WiMAX with LTE, and WiMAX hasn’t been able to convert some major players. There are also bandwidth and business model issues with 4G and WiMAX. But it’s a viable technology,” said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for the research group In-Stat.

Viable indeed, at least according to the WiMAX Forum, which can point to some pretty gaudy deployment numbers.

“Global roaming is real, and LTE holds good promise in two to three years. But WiMAX can give companies like Clearwire, cable MSOs and others real value because mobility has been missing. Clearwire is selling the mobile broadband wireless paradigm on an efficient IP platform. With any comparison, it’s better and faster than 3G, and eventually WiMAX and LTE will be equivalent,” said Declan Byrne, director of marketing for the WiMAX Forum.

Maybe so, but in the meantime, building and deploying a wireless network isn’t for the faint of heart and necessitates some pretty high-level, risk vs. reward discussions, Byrne admitted.

“Wireless has shown you can build the network in 12 months, and that is attractive to capital strategists at cable MSOs. But there are infrastructure and capital challenges because of base station deployments. The critical piece is scaling from a device standpoint and customer demand. Plus, operators are confused about the technologies, which we feel can coexist.”

Fred Gabbardwo of those technologies are TDD (Time Division Duplex) LTE and FDD (Frequency Division Duplex) LTE, which according to Motorola’s vice president of product management, Fred Gabbard, are technologies to be reckoned with in the 4G space.

“TDD and FDD LTE enable more efficient use of spectrum and we believe will eventually overtake WiMAX and offer a faster cost reduction curve. There are lots of similarities between WiMAX and TDD. WiMAX is for today, and TDD LTE is for later,” he explained.

Cisco is already providing LTE equipment for initial deployments, albeit with some challenging feedback from customers. “We’ve been told that current mobile Internet architectures are not prepared to meet the next generation of challenges and that Internet/mobile convergence is driving the need for next-gen mobile architectures,” said Andy Capener, director of service provider mobility solutions for Cisco.

There are also looming challenges for companies such as Aricent, a player in the 4G space, to develop ways to monetize services and stay current on the changing 4G landscape.

“The trend with big service providers like Verizon and AT&T is to LTE. In rural areas, i t ’s WiMAX. Globally, WiMAX has taken off, and femtocells are becoming very interesting to operators. For instance, AT&T is giving femtocell boxes to customers with reception issues. But 4G is where everyone says we need to go. The challenge is how to monetize it and optimize the networks,” said Shrikant Latkar, associate vice president for worldwide products and solutions marketing at Aricent.

Yung HahnOne way to address those challenges is to tighten the technology patent rules, an issue that has been flying under the 4G radar screen.

 “We’ve talked with Clearwire and others in the 4G ecosystem about coming together on intellectual property rights and creating a marketplace of patent holders. There are three different patent pool efforts in the LTE ecosystem, and there should be just one. That is a problem,” said Yung Hahn, president of the Open Patent Alliance.

It’s not the only one that the 4G world faces, either. Continued Hahn: “More spectrum must be made available, and the wireless technologies must work together to integrate with cellular networks. It’s a whole new world.”

And a demanding one, too, concluded Madan Jagernauth, vice president of wireless marketing and product management for Huawei Technologies USA. “There’s such a demand for data based on long-tail applications, and the Internet is driving lots of demand on networks. Proof points of LTE are being tested, and we’re seeing TDD spectrum efficiencies. The Holy Grail is more bits through the same bits of spectrum, and spectrum is expensive. It’s not about the technology but the convergence in the 4G ecosystem.”

For Clearwire and its partners, both present and future, it’s now about execution and scaling, Elder concluded. “By 2011, we plan 120 million people. That’s a huge building year for us, with twice the capacity of other carriers. We’re in a unique position.”

ABI’s Solis concurs. “Any company can become an MVNO in their network, even a device company like Dell. And data is the growing revenue source. Both WiMAX and LTE have full-feature roadmaps to get there.”

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