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Seybold’s Take - Wireless Broadband Battlelines

Wed, 07/02/2008 - 9:45pm
Andy Seybold

Mobile WiMAX players had hoped to capitalize on technology capabilities and time-to-market. As time goes by, it seems possible that the once-perceived dominance is evaporating.

Seybold
Seybold: I am on record as saying I would not be surprised if Intel was looking for a way to cut its losses and find another path into wireless.

By now, we all know WiMAX is the next big thing in wireless broadband. After all, we have been told so by Intel (repeatedly), Sprint, Clearwire, the WiMAX Forum and numerous companies that hope to make their fortunes by deploying WiMAX.

However, there are still a number of issues surrounding WiMAX. Can it live up to the hype? Can it deliver four times the speed at 1/10th the cost of 3G technologies already deployed including CDMA2000 1X EV-DO and UMTS/HSPA? And will there be scores of WiMAX devices because consumer appliance companies as well as notebook companies will use Intel chips with WiMAX onboard in every device they make and ship?

WiMAX remains an unproven and untested technology that is turning out to cost more than expected to deploy. This is especially true as it uses the higher portion of the spectrum allocated for it at 2.5 GHz. Sprint has “given” its Xohm WiMAX program to Clearwire in exchange for 51% of the company, and Intel and others have thrown yet another $3.2 billion into the Clearwire/WiMAX pot to see if stirring in more ingredients (partners and money) will result in something people will want to use and pay for.

WiMAX + LTE?
I am on record as saying I would not be surprised if Intel was looking for a way to cut its losses and find another path into wireless. Last week, one executive said he thought that WiMAX and LTE (Long-Term Evolution, the GSM/UMTS 4G technology) should be merged into a common standard so as not to “confuse” customers – as if they are confused about the two standards GSM/UMTS and CDMA. Customers don’t care what the technology is, only what it will do.

Sometimes an idea is floated to see whether it will be accepted. Sometimes it is only wishful thinking and sometimes it signals the path a company is about to embark on. We’ll have to wait and see what Intel will actually do. (See “The Marriage of WiMAX and LTE” in this issue.)

In the meantime, Intel has announced it’s getting back into the chip business for handheld devices, including processors and wireless connectivity, and it will be releasing chips that work on both WiMAX and LTE.

The flaw I see in this strategy is that all of the other LTE chipsets also will be capable of working on GSM/UMTS/HSPA and/or CDMA/EV-DO. Building a WiMAX and WiMAX/LTE chipset means Intel is betting on one or both of these technologies becoming pervasive in the near future. This is a bad bet.

We will have a very long transition from 3G to 4G, and we will need 2G capabilities in our devices (at least for voice) for a long time to come. Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t seem to mean anything to Intel.

Perhaps this will. While Intel was busy pushing WiMAX – claiming that existing 3G technologies don’t measure up, that WiMAX is better than LTE, and that WiMAX will be in the market sooner – the IEEE announced that it has completed work on 802.20, a technology presented by Qualcomm and other industry representatives. The IEEE is the same organization that passed the 802.11 standards and then both WiMAX standards – 802.16 and 802.16e (mobile).

The specifications for 802.20 go well beyond those for 802.16e when it comes to data speeds and mobility speeds since 802.20 is designed to be able to work even on trains traveling at up to 250 mph, and it is now a certified standard.

Intel is finding itself surrounded. Based on 802.20, UMB (Ultra Mobility Broadband) will be the 4G flavor of CDMA2000 1X EV-DO Rev. A and B, and LTE will be the 4G flavor of GSM/UMTS. Now with 802.20 in the mix, it gets even more convoluted, especially since 802.20 comes from the same standards body (IEEE) that developed WiMAX, a 3G technology. Where does that leave WiMAX?

This makes the next generation of wireless broadband even more confusing. It also gives Intel less room to play in a world it hoped to dominate with WiMAX.

If Intel is to play in the wireless broadband world, it will have to do so on a level playing field where there are several technology choices. LTE appears to be the clear migration choice for wireless networks that have already migrated from 1G to 2G to 3G and now 4G technologies. At least in the United States, starting a new network from scratch with yet another new technology is tough, as the WiMAX folks are finding out.

Seybold heads Andrew Seybold, Inc., which provides consulting, educational and publishing services. For more information, visit www.andrewseybold.com

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