WiMAX World 2008 Update

WiMAX has gone through an overhype stage and now is like so many other technologies – VoIP included, at a stage where the markets are trying to figure out where the opportunities lie. Indeed, trying to determine what is real and what is hype is difficult to do and to cut through the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) I spent time at WiMAX World in Chicago to learn more from the movers and shakers in the space.

I came armed with questions about deployments and the threat of LTE – the evolutionary technology theoretically enabling 2-3G operators to ignore WiMAX. In the last six months there have been numerous articles and technical white papers written about whether WiMAX is necessary.

To cut to the chase, I spoke with VP Chair, Marketing Working Group of the WiMAX Forum, Dr. Mo Shakouri who explained that the transition to LTE is more than a simple software upgrade as carriers need to go from CDMA to OFDM – which obviously requires hardware. They believe there is a strong marketing campaign being waged by mobile operators and some hardware providers who want to sow FUD in the WiMAX market.

In order to combat the threat from LTE the WiMAX Forum is feverishly working with companies to develop lower cost CPE devices as carrier profitability is tied to device cost. In fact, the cost of such devices should soon be in the $20-$30 range. He acknowledges that the increased FUD has slowed investment in the market but at the same time explains that worldwide, governments are pushing WiMAX as they realize mobile wireless broadband is crucial to the success of their nations. As a result they are allocating frequencies to make WiMAX a reality in their parts of the world.

From Shakouri’s perspective, most every carrier will have to overlay WiMAX on their networks to provide mobile broadband access at speeds sufficient for future applications. He explains this is happening in many countries today and in a few cases, major operators are resisting this trend. I should mention that in the cases where operators spread FUD, it is coincidentally the case that the carriers do not own frequencies which would allow them to easily roll WiMAX out themselves.

This sounds to me exactly like what the major carriers and equipment providers did when IP telephony first started to become popular. They downplayed the new technology for years while secretly working on IP communications solutions themselves.

Shakouri also reminds us that WiMAX has a huge head start over LTE and laptops and other devices will soon be equipped with WiMAX radios meaning LTE will be at a disadvantage.

I interviewed a number of people at WiMAX World and they concurred with most of what Shakouri told me. Motorola was a notable exception. I spent a good amount of time picking the brains of Sudhakar Ramakrishna, Corporate VP and GM, Tom Gruba, Senior Director and Kathi Haas External Communications. Their take? It is possible for carriers to skip WiMAX and many are doing so. Indeed they agree that some say WiMAX has a three-year head start over LTE but they are actively engaged in providing LTE networks for their customers today. I pressed for an ETA but couldn’t get one.

Motorola is truly agnostic in the LTE vs. WiMAX war and they will tell you they just want to do what is best for customers. Sometimes as discussed earlier this has to do with available frequencies. It is worth discussing that Motorola also feels they are well positioned in the wireless space as they are able to leverage their wireline expertise and also help carriers deploy their connected home visions.

My take is that WiMAX is happening today and has proven itself quite well. I have spoken with operators making money providing WiMAX service and they are happy with the price points and look forward to them going lower. LTE does have a tremendous advantage of a massive installed base of devices which will be upgraded by wireless carriers over time. In the end, there may be a winner but for the foreseeable future expect peaceful and in some cases, not so peaceful coexistence.

Other Important WiMAX Happenings

Chinese communications giant Huaweii has 29 signed WiMAX contracts, 35 trials and 2,000 engineers developing WiMAX products. One of the latest products is a Picocell available in Q1 ’09. They also have the second generation of their WiMAX base station available which also supports CDMA, HSPA and EVDO.

Palasium uses Israeli military technology to cancel interference in WiMAX networks. Think of it as noise cancelling for WiMAX. Using software, the company is able to target the interfering signal of adjacent antennas by producing waves which cancel them out. The result is lower cost and denser networks with less interference and QoS problems.

Comsys is one of the few companies in the WiMAX chip space with experience in GSM. The company targets device manufacturers and one recent Taiwanese company, dmedia is using the Comsys ComMAX CM1100 baseband chip as part of a GPS device which allows real-time views of traffic at various intersections.

Soma Networks – a long-term WiMAX equipment provider has recently inked a deal with Indian telecom giant BSNL and will provide services on a revenue sharing basis. The company will seek more deals of this nature going forward.

Wavesat – a fables wireless semiconductor company thinks they have a home run with their low-power SDBC or software defined baseband Odyssey chips which allows an OFDMA core and a definable air protocol. The company will soon have a chip which does WiMAX or LTE – meaning lower prices than traditional chip vendors such as Beceem.

San Diego based NextWave Wireless sells WiMAX chips which are ideally suited to video applications. The company’s MXtv technology allows true mobile multimedia over WiMAX networks. The company also provides a broadcast service and owns spectrum which they are actively selling. To be honest the company’s strategy is unusual – it seems overly broad. Then again it is similar to Qualcomm, a company who has been very successful doing similar things.

It is worth pointing out the company is in the sweet spot of the future – mobile multimedia. It will be worth watching if they can pull off their ambitious goals of being a premiere WiMAX chip vendor in multimedia and other applications.

Fujitsu Semiconductor has made waves with their new Femtocell SoC which supports 30+ meters of coverage and self-organizing networks Devices based on this chip will allow true connected home functionality on a licensed band and moreover allow cable companies to build the equivalent of p2p networks where their networks in dense areas could rival those of wireless carriers. The company is optimizing their chip for sub $100 CPE cost.

Alvarion has over 230 deployments with over 50 being mobile. India and Russia are some of the hottest areas for WiMAX growth according to the company and Alvarion is now the OEM and R&D WiMAX arm for Nortel.

Altair Semiconductor has a laser-like focus on low-power WiMAX chips and showed these chips off to me. These low-cost chips do not require external memory and are perfect for applications where battery life is critical or in areas of the world where device cost is a major issue.

  • wimaxed
    October 29, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Looks like WiMAX technology is getting a lot of traction these days. TelegeoGraphy just came up with a report showing a great growth for WiMAX all over the world, especially in India.

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