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Wed 22 Dec 2004 04:00 AM

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Why WiMax?

WiMax is due to arrive next year in the Middle East and already the region is awash with hype. But with wireless broadband technology solutions stretching back ten years, what does WiMax bring to the party?

|~|keith-doucet-2_m.jpg|~|“There are lots of proprietary solutions out there, which brings lots of complexity and confusion for operators looking to build a serious network. WiMax is going to make sure that everyone has the same specifications and the operator will have the comfort of knowing that he is not beholden to one company, can benefit from competition and can have consistent performance.” - Keith Doucet, VP of marketing and product management at Redline Communications and a member of the WiMax Forum|~|WiMax has generated a lot of attention in the last year, but it is not a new technology. In fact, proprietary broadband wireless solutions have been used in the enterprise for many years. The WiMax Forum, like the Wi-Fi alliance, was set up not to invent a wireless technology but to standardise it. The Forum has heavyweight vendors, particularly Intel, throwing their weight and money behind it.

The reason Intel is pushing WiMax so hard is that it stands to gain from widespread WiMax adoption. The US chipmaker plans to churn out millions of WiMax chips, initially for outdoor use, then for use in PC and notebook add-in cards and finally integrated into notebooks, PDAs and mobile phones. Intel also hopes that the proliferation of wireless technology will boost sales of equipment, many of which will probably carry Intel processors and chipsets.

“Intel has backed IEEE standards in the past including Ethernet and Wi-Fi, so the reason for doing so here is to enable growth within the industry. It is an enabler that will drive platform consumption,” says Carl Schmits, service provider marketing, Intel.

The WiMax Forum is projecting a variety of iterations of 802.16 technology, each of which will address a specific market need. 802.16d is a fixed wireless standard that will broadcast signals to a single point and will not broadcast indoors. Future versions are projected to be capable of broadcasting to multiple points and to indoor receivers. The 802.16e standard will provide wireless broadband to mobile users, which could extend the hot spot from café environs city-wide. It is expected that 802.16d will be ratified in Q205, with 802.16e projected to follow in 2006.

WiMax promises technical enhancements over existing wireless standards, the most famous of which is Wi-Fi, or 802.11. In terms of speed, the fixed WiMax standard (802.16d) is projected to transfer data at up to 75Mbytes/s, which puts it ahead of the current Wi-Fi top speed of 54Mbytes/s. However, the most obvious benefit is enhanced coverage, which has been quoted as anything from 15-30km.

This dwarfs the coverage range of the existing Wi-Fi standard, which tops out at around 100m. This means that rather than compete with Wi-Fi, WiMax will open up a more extensive range of applications to wireless. For example, 802.16d has the potential to act as an alternative to cable-driven residential DSL and should have greatest appeal in areas where laying cable is costly and time consuming. Furthermore, unlike previous wireless systems, 802.16d is geared towards carrying fixed voice traffic as well as data, which again widens the list of potential applications.

It is this broad potential that is generating excitement among network managers. The enterprise could, for example, use 802.16d to communicate between offices, cutting reliance on expensive leased lines.

“In an enterprise like ours, WiMax can save us money on leased line connectivity,” says Muhammed Aslam Malik, manager of network and communications at Emirates Bank. “It can also provide redundancy. In this region, we have one telecom company, with no backup. We need a second telco or a second mode of communication to provide redundancy,” he adds.

The bank uses free space optics (FSO) links as a backup to its leased line communication between its head office in the United Arab Emirates and its Saudi operation and sees WiMax as another potential solution. Emirates Bank is also evaluating the potential of WiMax to carry services to remote areas where leased lines are not present. The company is pleased with its FSO solution but has singled out line of sight difficulties in cities like Dubai where new high-rise buildings appear at a frequent rate, as a drawback. WiMax should provide more accessibility.

However, FSO vendors claim that WiMax operates in already crowded wireless bands and brings the possibility of interference. “We believe that for point-to-point links, FSO will continue to be the best option,” says Ayman Al Saffan, manager of FSO vendor PAV Middle East. “WiMax is likely to be a relatively expensive technology to deploy, has problems in meeting the restrictions on usable bands across the world and is vulnerable to interference,” he adds.

Point-to-point links are not likely to be where WiMax will have most impact, however. Most users are seeing it as point to multi-point technology, which means it is likely to co-exist with FSO.

WiMax faces a greater challenge closer to home from the proprietary pre-WiMax wireless broadband technologies in the market. These solutions have been successfully deployed and many have garnered a high degree of customer satisfaction. A challenge for WiMax favouring vendors is to persuade users to make what could be a costly migration.

Although with many vendors straddling both the pre-WiMax and WiMax worlds, this transition could be relatively painless. Proxim is one such company. It has a solution today that delivers on many of the WiMax specifications and also intends to evolve its products to the WiMax standard once it is finalised.

“We have a product today that operates at 36Mbytes/s, whereas WiMax is promising in excess of 70Mbytes/s. Today a lot of customers are comfortable with what they can get out of pre-WiMax products in terms of performance,” says Bryan Hall, regional sales manager Middle East & Africa at Proxim.

“Operators can go out today and gain a customer base on pre-WiMax solutions. They know they will have to migrate to WiMax soon but they can build up a customer base in the meantime. It is much easier to retain customers than wrestle them off other companies,” he adds.

The standardisation of broadband wireless technologies should bring benefits to end users. Proprietary solutions are by nature non-interoperable with other vendor’s products. Within a standard, all products will conform to the same specifications and work with each other. This brings more choice to the end user and also drives competition, which over time, reduces prices.

“There are lots of proprietary solutions out there, which brings lots of complexity and confusion for operators looking to build a serious network,” says Keith Doucet, VP of marketing and product management at Redline Communications and a member of the WiMax Forum. “WiMax is going to make sure that everyone has the same specifications and the operator will have the comfort of knowing that he is not beholden to one company, can benefit from competition and can have consistent performance,” he adds.

One of the enterprises to test pre-WiMax wireless technology is Saudi Aramco, which used it to link facilities at Dhahran and Qatif, at a distance of 35km.

“The tests have produced throughput results of 13Mbytes/s on average, with spikes of 22Mbytes/s, at a power rating of 20dBm. The link has a theoretical speed limit of 36Mbytes/s,” says Nabil Khalid Al-Dabal, manager of the communications engineering and technical support department at Saudi Aramco. Al-Dabal also says the energy giant will look at WiMax compliant products once the standard is ratified.

Complicating matters further for end users, 802.16e is not the only prospective standard that seeks to bring order to the world of mobile wireless broadband. The 802.20 specification, which is also based on orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), though is not compatible with 802.16, has staked a claim. The 802.20 specification has not been standardised but it has been backed by some vendors and is in trials with service providers in Germany and Hawaii.

802.20 was dealt a body blow however, when a group of vendors backing it, switched to 802.16. This has had both a positive and negative impact on 802.16, according to those in the WiMax Forum.

“There has been a trend away from 802.20,” says Doucet. “A lot of key members have joined WiMax, which is good as it indicates that 802.16e is the preferred choice but the bad news is the influx of serious players has delayed the standard. The IEEE process is very fair and will listen to all views before concluding,” he explains.

Although the 802.16 standard has the upper hand and the momentum at the moment, most companies have not completely taken their eyes off 802.20. For end users, the shifting allegiances between standards can lead to confusion.

“A lot of vendors look at standards these days as a way of collective marketing,” says Mike Campbell, general manager of systems integrator Nextech. “The standards are competing as much as the vendors themselves are competing and it becomes a minefield for customers,” he adds.

Further muddying the waters, WiMax isn’t content with challenging proprietary wireless broadband, Wi-Fi, FSO and 802.20 — it also has implications for 3G. The cellular technology has proved expensive and has been slow to gain traction in the region and there is a possibility that WiMax could evolve into a lower priced and faster alternative.

“WiMax is a competitive technology,” says Bashar Arafeh, director of marketing for Jordanian mobile operator Fastlink. “But my view is you create your own competition. If you don’t someone else will. Maybe today it’s 1% of your business, but in five years it can grow and you grow with it. You don’t allow anyone else to come in and make it their own,” he explains.

It is likely that mobile operators will embrace the technology rather than oppose it, but with work on the 802.16e standard still under way, some commentators are sceptical about performance and coverage claims and say that it will not pose a great threat to 3G. The fixed WiMax standard will boast high speed and coverage, but as coverage widens and the focus switches to mobility, sceptics say, this will reduce the maximum data transfer speed.

“As the radio gets faster, it also consumes more power and is less conducive to mobility,” says Jim Morrison, CEO, iMate. “You can make calls using a GSM network in a speeding car that you probably couldn’t make over a full speed WiMax network,” he adds.

Sceptics have also pointed to the power issue as a potential stumbling block. The current radios for WiMax are power thirsty, as they need to be to meet stiff requirements in terms of speed and coverage. This has led many commentators to question WiMax’s value as a mobile technology.

“WiMax is strictly a fixed wireless technology as the power consumption demands are too great for mobile devices aside from notebooks with huge batteries,” says Morrison.

Intel plans to reduce the size of WiMax radios, so they can be incorporated into notebooks, PDAs and mobile phones but it faces a huge challenge and logically, a lower power radio should be capable of lower transmission speeds and less coverage.

“Intel has been all about die shrinkage and integration, with Wi-Fi chipsets a good example. They were originally access point size but we got them down in size over time while hitting performance requirements,” says Intel’s Schmits. “We plan to have a WiMax PC add-in card by the end of 2006, a WiMax antenna in the PC platform by 2007 and in handsets by 2008,” he adds.

It is possible that WiMax could emerge as a potential contender to 3G but there are many obstacles it must overcome first. Even if it rises to the challenge, it will not be fully available until the later part of the decade. It is conceivable that by this time 3G could have evolved into a more robust proposition in terms of traction, pricing and performance.

An even greater challenge for WiMax, at least in the short term, is the confusion in the market as to what exactly it can deliver. The many iterations of 802.16 technology, as well as the multitude of potential applications have created a scattergun approach that could lead to as many misses as hits. This means the enterprise must be very careful when looking at WiMax.

“WiMax is still is a disruptive technology,” says Arafeh. “In the near future, it will not be deployed in end user applications. Wi-Fi still has to maximise its potential, although it has limitations of distance, so WiMax could play major role as a backbone channel for Wi-Fi,” he adds.

Perhaps the most enticing vision for WiMax technology is the constant connectivity idea envisioned by the likes of Intel. This sees a Russian doll model of wireless technologies, starting from personal area network (PAN) technologies such as Bluetooth, moving up to Wi-Fi as the LAN technology, then WiMax as the metropolitan area network (MAN) and finally 3G providing almost global coverage. The idea is that users will be able to move seamlessly between these networks utilising whichever connection is most efficient at the time.

“A good example of how it can work is someone on a train journey could use Wi-Fi while at the station but when the train starts its journey he would switch to WiMax. Then when out of the metropolitan area he would switch to 3G,” says Schmits. “All of this would be happening on the back-end, with the user unaware and seamless handoff between technologies. In each instance the service provider would be delivering the best speed at the best price possible,” he adds.

This is some years off and there are many technical and business obstacles to overcome before this kind of pervasive wireless network becomes a reality, not least in signaling between cellular and IP networks.

“The hard part is not the phones, it’s the handoff between the GSM and IP networks. You have Signaling System 7 (SS7) on one side and IP on the other. There are companies working on these at the moment but they are some way off,” says Nextech’s Campbell.

While the WiMax standard will arrive next year and pre-WiMax technologies have been available for ten years, end users are not likely to see widespread use of WiMax until mobile WiMax chipsets are widely available in several years time. In the meantime, a cautious stance is well-advised, as the technology and business models will evolve fast and despite the hype, no one can be really sure how WiMax will be best deployed, if at all, in the enterprise.||**||

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