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Rivals jockey for 4G LEAD

Posted: 01 Mar 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Rick Merritt? Intel? Qualcomm? wireless? 4G?

Intel Corp. and Qualcomm Inc.!and the rival technology horses they've backed!both recently edged forward in the broadband wireless race. The stakes: who gets to define the underpinnings of the 4G wireless networks that will give mobile users multimegabit links.

The 4G systems are expected to disrupt today's providers of DSL and cable modems by supporting mobility. Cheaper and faster to deploy than wired options, they are also expected to sweep up the next billion Web users in developing countries.

"Thirty years ago, we proved that communications were personal," said ArrayComm LLC chairman Martin Cooper, who had helped commercialize the cellphone while at Motorola Inc. "That was a huge and profound change and it's about to happen again." ArrayComm is working to ensure that its smart-antenna technology becomes a key component in tomorrow's high-speed wireless systems.

Intel has its 4G bets on WiMAX. The Wireless Communications Association's recent International Symposium and Business Expo was a WiMAX lovefest. The gathering provided details on chipsets for the IEEE 802.16e mobile standard, which is expected to go mainstream by 2008.

Intel reserved its big 4G news for the Intel Developer Forum, where it announced it is working with startup Beceem Communications Inc. to put WiMAX silicon in notebooks starting in 2007. The effort is widely expected to create a mainstream market for WiMAX, just as Intel's Centrino platform did for 802.11 Wi-Fi. Beceem recently showed Mini PCI cards that it said will consume less than 1W and handle more than 1Mbps using versions of its chips tailored for notebook and handheld devices.

Qualcomm, meanwhile, closed its deal to acquire Flarion Technologies Inc., a startup whose rival technology has been accepted as the basis of the frequency-division duplex version of the 802.20 wireless broadband standard. At the CTIA Wireless 2006 conference in April, Qualcomm is expected to detail plans to put the Flarion technology in handset chips.

Sprint Nextel is studying both technologies!as well as options on the CDMA and GSM road maps!as candidates for a wholesale upgrade of its CDMA cellular network in 2008 to 3Mbps in a bid to compete with DSL and cable, Len Lauer, the carrier's COO, said in a keynote address at WCA. "We believe this upgrade must be revolutionary," Lauer said. "We hope to make an architecture decision in the first half of this year."

Sprint conducted a "very successful" trial of the Flarion technology in North Carolina last year, he said. It will test WiMAX this year.

Nose to nose
The race among Intel's WiMAX-based strategy, Qualcomm's Flarion technology and competing approaches is still too close to call, said Will Strauss, principal of Forward Concepts. However, all the 4G competitors will likely be based on OFDM variants.

WiMAX has an edge because it is an open standard backed by multiple companies, said Jake Macleod, CTO of Bechtel Telecommunications, which has installed thousands of cellular base stations and conducted extensive studies of last-mile technologies. "Once we get certified products, WiMAX is the most economical and quickest to deploy."

WiMAX faces many challenges, however. Vendors today must wade through competing .16e, .16d and proprietary technologies. Although a consensus is brewing that .16e has the best shot at a mass market, vendors must first bring costs down and enable roaming among a growing list of spectrum options, from 700MHz to 3.5GHz.

Currently, most carriers are going with proprietary systems. Clearwire International LLC, a startup funded by Craig McCaw, has garnered more than 100,000 users since its launch in August 2004, using proprietary systems from subsidiary NextNet. Clearwire has eschewed WiMAX thus far, saying its approach already has the features of .16e and could have 2 million subscribers by the time .16e systems are broadly available for commercial deployment in 2008.

Intel's plan to put WiMAX into future Centrino notebooks is what will pave the way to a mass market, said Carlton O'Neal, VP of marketing at Alvarion Inc. Given that scenario, companies like Alvarion see their long-term business as supplying WiMAX base stations.

"The challenge we face for the next three to four years is that we really have to drive down the costs" of WiMAX deployment, Sean Maloney, general manager of Intel's mobility group, said in a WCA keynote.

WiMAX client systems cost as much as $300 today, but vendors need to be able to make combined WiMAX/Wi-Fi modules for as little as $20, said Scott Richardson, general manager of Intel's wireless broadband division.

Beceem marketing director Aditya Agrawal, unveiling its chipset on the WCA show floor, said the company expects WiMAX Mini PCI cards to retail initially for $100.

Stitching together a patchwork of global WiMAX spectrum bands is another challenge, according to Intel's Maloney. "We are headed toward three WiMAX systems!2.5GHz and 2.3GHz in the United States and Asia, and 3.5GHz in Europe," he said. "It's technically feasible to have roaming across these networks and we need to start working on that now."

Forum 'goal'
Intel marketing executive Ron Resnick, who chairs the WiMAX Forum, promised to "make it a goal and push it through the forum to come up with a roaming model."

For its part, Clearwire hopes to hammer out nationwide roaming this year for its U.S. users and intercountry roaming for users in Europe, said CTO Nick Kauser. But Clearwire has no immediate plans to support roaming between the U.S. and European services.

Meanwhile, WiMAX vendors hope to snag some of the 700MHz spectrum the U.S. government will reclaim from analog TV stations in early 2009.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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