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Sun 9 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

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Future of mobile broadband

While WiMAX and LTE are generally viewed as competing standards, the rival technologies for mobile broadband may eventually prove to be complementary.

While WiMAX and LTE are generally viewed as competing standards, the rival technologies for mobile broadband may eventually prove to be complementary.

Operators are looking to upgrade their services to provide more efficient and capable mobile broadband networks, and LTE and WiMAX are widely viewed as the two best options that can keep people in touch with the rest of the world while on the move.

WiMAX has been touted as the first truly fourth generation standard, but will it be superseded by LTE before it has time to establish itself?

There have been many battles between competing technologies over the years, as manufacturers look to cash in on the latest advances in technology by making their equipment the common standard.

If Mobile WiMAX fails to certify or takes longer to certify, LTE is considered as a strong competitor. - Girish Trivedi, deputy director, Frost and Sullivan.

The battle between the two favourites for fourth generation mobile technology has been compared to the video player battle between Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS in the early 1980s, but does one standard have to triumph at the expense of the other?

The GSMA, including Asus, Dell, Ericsson, Telefónica Europe, Telecom Italia, TeliaSonera, T-Mobile, Toshiba and Vodafone threw its weight behind LTE last month, with the announcement that US$1 billion would be spent marketing its ‘Mobile Broadband' sticker for wirelessly enabled laptops.

Support for WiMAX has come mainly from computer companies, with Intel its biggest proponent and US operators AT&T and Sprint Nextel on the board of WiMAX forum.

But is it a simple case of choosing one or the other? Nortel backs both, describing WiMAX as an "exciting new technology that delivers high-speed access wirelessly, enabling fixed and mobile broadband services over large coverage areas" and LTE as "the next-generation network beyond 3G". Similarly, Nokia, through its Nokia Siemens venture is driving LTE forward, but the Finnish company is also on the board of the WiMAX forum.

Girish Trivedi, deputy director of analysts Frost and Sullivan, thinks the companies supporting each technology will play a key role. He says: "A technology with better ecosystem of developers leads to decline in prices for deployment.

"Once proven both technologies have potential to get pricing competitive if spectrum and ratified products are available as they have a competent partner ecosystem."

Supporting both is a strategy that makes sense to Robert Syputa, partner and senior analyst at Maravedis, a company specialising in WiMAX and broadband research. "Operators in general can support both standards because communications is increasingly IP-based - the same device and program interfaces, mobile and web-based portals, and content ride on WiMAX or LTE.

"The IP packets don't discriminate. Operator's services are increasingly being built to be delivered over IP, the network is an important decision but is not as critical: if devices support both it matters less what standard the system is based on than how well the network is suited to the particular spectrum and other deployment parameters."

First to market

Stephen Lightley, WiMAX marketing director, NEC Europe, says that WiMAX operators are trying to establish a firm base from which they can build their operations. "What we're seeing from operators that we're working with in the Far East is that they are using governmental authorities as anchor customers," he says.

They are really bringing those on as social infrastructure projects and as enterprise type approaches, and that social infrastructure is actually growing the offer into the medical sector and linking into retail and residential."

WiMAX has also been pegged as the technology of choice for developing markets, with Africa mentioned as the perfect environment for the "last mile" technology. In other continents, a number of networks have already started to roll WiMAX networks.

In late September, US wireless operator Sprint Nextel launched a commercial WiMAX broadband network in Baltimore under its Xohm brand, with plans to expand it to Chicago and Washington DC by the end of the year, and further networks planned for deployment in Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence.

LTE technology is not at the same stage as WiMAX, and is still undergoing trials to test the performance of the network and of devices. Bernhard Schaupp, senior consultant, radio access at Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), says that he expects end-to-end LTE trials to continue throughout next year, with a "commercial launch of data-centric services, not so much voice, big cities and urban areas," by 2010.

He adds that by 2011, operator service migration to LTE is anticipated.

Indeed, NSN claims it will be offering LTE-compatible base station hardware to more than ten major mobile operators in Europe, Asia and North America by the end of this year.

The vendor says it has upgraded its current ‘Flexi Multimode Base Station' kit to support future LTE technology, and that once the LTE standard is officially ratified, NSN claims that only a software upgrade will be required to make the base stations fully LTE functional. NSN adds that the software upgrade will be available in the second half of next year, ready for planned commercial LTE network rollouts from 2010.

The GSMA last month unveiled its $1 billion dollar plan to raise awareness of LTE-ready laptops and devices through a sticker campaign that was questioned by some analysts who thought it may have been better spent reducing the cost of the devices.

Only a few mobile devices are available for each technology, but both standards claim to have major vendors working hard towards releasing more. Schaupp says: "It's going according to the road map. In the beginning it will be data cards," he says.

Across the divide, Intel and four of the larger laptop manufacturers have teamed up to release the first WiMAX-enabled laptops on the US market, which the chipset manufacturer says will be available for customers to order online. Other manufacturers such as Dell, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are expected to release WiMAX laptops by next year.

Is the technology compatible?Robert Syputa, partner and senior analyst at Maravedis, says: "The IEEE 802.16e/m and 3GPP/3GPP2 3G and LTE standards are being harmonized for hand off level operation between networks.  However, WiMAX and LTE remain individual standards that have differences in modulation methods.

"Several vendors now use the same hardware and software development platforms and say that about 90% of the designs are common between the two systems.  This convergence in designs is a trend that drives the next versions of the standards even closer together: 802.16m/j and LTE-Advanced, particularly the LTE-TDD version, will have approximately 95% of technology in common. Since the suppliers use software defined radio (SDR) hardware platforms for base stations and nodes/remote stations, ASNs and IMS and other infrastructure, the differences can be handled largely in software."

Besides the promotion and marketing of the equipment, one major way of differentiating the two standards could be through the release of applications specific to WiMAX or LTE. Lightley says that people are still looking for the "killer application", and the problem for WiMAX is that nobody has really found it yet.

"The way we see it, is that it's a blend of services; you're not going to find one solution today that is going to make that business case work. You're going to have to start building and evolving the network, into enterprise areas or areas that traditionally would not go for a wireless type solution," Lightley adds.

Cost concerns

With bandwidth usage continuing to rise, the price structuring of mobile broadband tariffs is being called into question. Per megabyte price plans are typically costly, and can result in unfortunate instances of ‘bill shock', with customers landed with enormous bills because they failed to read the small print of their operator's terms and conditions.

Operators can support both standards, because communications is increasingly IP based - the IP packets don’t discriminate. - Robert Syputa, partner and senior analyst, Maravedis.

In such instances, operators may be technically correct if they insist upon payment, but it still produces negative publicity. Operators who have not already done so may find it makes sense to move to an "all-you-can-eat" method of payment, with unlimited access in exchange for a set monthly fee.

Such a move will inevitably lead to increased usage, so in order to remain profitable the technology that reduces the cost per megabyte will have a significant advantage.

Syputa says: "Operators who have 2-2.5G networks may find it attractive to jump to a WiMAX and LTE networks rather than invest in 3-3.5G, and operators who have recently deployed or upgraded to 3.-3.5G networks may wish to continue to invest and exploit prior investments until pressed by network capacity or competition to move to either WiMAX or LTE."

He adds that as LTE is not yet available, judgements about the cost of deploying it are "premature" but he adds that as the systems use very similar technology and network architecture so that they can be expected to have a similar cost structure.

"From a market perspective, incumbent operators are constrained by current service methods," Syputa adds. "They may continue to restrict access or impose long-term contracts or other incumbent practices. This has nothing to do with differences between WiMAX and LTE technologies and everything to do with maintaining current revenues," he adds.

"The vision for IP-based communications is to open up networks to increased variety of services that is expected to increase overall usefulness and entertainment value, thus driving overall revenues. However, this requires operators to change the way they do business: they must appeal more to individual customer while they depend less on lock-downs of services, contracts, and devices."

As with so many aspects of the telecoms industry, regulators in individual countries will play a significant role as they will carve up the spectrum that both technologies rely upon. Trivedi says that regulators can ease the process by offering spectrum at a competitive price and creating a growth friendly environment, and he warns that delays in spectrum auctioning will go against the lead time that mobile WiMAX has over 3G LTE.

The regulator in Qatar included provisions for WiMAX services when it issued the second fixed-line licence to Vodafone, and operators around the Gulf, including Etisalat and du in the UAE, have been awarded WiMAX licenses while Mobily has rolled out WiMAX in four cities in Saudi Arabia.

The WiMAX forum says that WiMAX is currently being deployed on in both the 2.x and 3.x GHz bands, and Tim Hewitt, chair of the regulatory working group of the WiMAX Forum, says the dominant bands will be determined by spectrum availability for mobile broadband technologies across the globe and "the cumulative level of investment in each band". "However," he adds, "the 2300-2400, 2500-2690 and 3400-3600 MHz bands are major bands for WiMAX rollout in most parts of the globe."

It has been suggested that, on a like for like basis, there could be as much as twice or three times as much spectrum suitable for WiMAX as there is for LTE, but research from ABI says that GSM-based networks represent the primary radio access network technology deployed, with over 80% of the installed base of base stations worldwide.

It concludes that, with the notable exception of Verizon Wireless, WCDMA networks generally will migrate to LTE and that eventually, this will translate to wider deployment at a faster rate than WiMAX, with the LTE subscriber rate surpassing mobile WiMAX subscribers after 2015.

Around the same time that LTE rolls out, 802.16m, or WiMAX 2.0, is expected to make its way into products. "One of the main differentiators for 802.16m will be its backwards-compatibility with a developed OFDMA ecosystem derived from 802.16e," continues ABI research analyst Solis. "Whereas LTE will be not be backwards-compatible with anything except through the inclusion of 2G and 3G radios, 2G/3G compatibility can and will be achieved with WiMAX in the same way."

"If you compare Mobile WiMAX and 3G LTE, they are more or less similar - based on OFDMA," adds Trivedi. "The main difference is that they are pushed by two separate camps." Mobile WiMAX is a ratified standard today; however 3G LTE is not. While there is a strong case of these two technologies coexisting, all will depend on how each camp moves forward.

While it may depend on the geography and business model, it is possible that operators may use both technologies. It will also depend on the allocation of spectrum and costs as well as maturity, ratification of standards, availability devices etc on the way forward.

There may be room for both standards, but with a degree of overlap in the standards both camps are keen to make their technology the established one, as evidenced by a flurry of marketing activity from both sides. The biggest opportunity for mobile WiMAX is the chance to develop a device ecosystem and subscriber base before LTE has time.

Analysts from Maravedis telecom market research and analysis note that "many additional patents overlap between 802.16m WiMAX and LTE, including patents essential to in-band adjacent channel coexistence", including methods for multi-mode operation of base stations and devices, which is similar to the way that prior generations of mobile networks co-exist.

The more interesting patents reveal methods to harmonize WiMAX and LTE on what it describes as "a sub-channel link basis", that is, at the basic level of communications.

"The threat from 3G is strong and as LTE is an extension of 3G it would not require much effort for existing mobile subscribers to opt for 3G services," says Trivedi.

"The device costs has declined for 3G phones, however 3G offers speeds which are 1/30th the speed that WiMAX could offer. If Mobile WiMAX either fails to certify or takes longer to certify, 3G Long Term Evolution (LTE) is considered as a strong competitor to WiMAX. Mobile WiMAX is a ratified standard but 3G LTE is yet to be ratified," Trivedi says.

Rival camps

LTE is backed by GSMA, including 3 Group, Asus, Dell, ECS, Ericsson, Gemalto, Lenovo, Microsoft, Orange, Qualcomm, Telefónica Europe, Telecom Italia, TeliaSonera, T-Mobile, Toshiba and Vodafone.

Members of the WiMAX Forum board include Intel, Alcatel Lucent, Fujitsu, Motorola, Samsung and ZTE along with US operators AT&T and Sprint Nextel.

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