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A long road to convergence

Posted: 16 Aug 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Craig Mathias? Farpoint Group? communication? spotlight? radio days?

In case you didn't notice, a lot of the jockeying for position that went into the first draft of the 802.11n standard was simply designed to give certain players competitive advantage over certain other players. It works like this: Get really deep into a chip design that you hope will be the next standard, work lots of nights to get the core stuff you've designed into the standard, and voila, a multimonth advantage over the competition. How else to explain announcements of "draft-compliant" chipsets within minutes of the vote for draft approval?

Of course, such behavior is possible only when there's a clear standard. In WLANs, .11n is it. There's no competition for the next-gen WLAN PHY.

But what's to do when there is competition in the form of multiple in-process standards, compounded by a nascent market and very little current end-user demand? That's the challenge facing the dozens of companies working in fixed-mobile convergence today. And convergence is perhaps the most important wireless trend of all, initially binding cellphones to PBXes, but ultimately providing transparency between cellular LAN and WLANs.

It sounds like fertile ground for a standards effort, right? Indeed, such work is sprouting everywhere.

The really big gun is IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS). I liken IMS to the theory of relativity: There are perhaps 10 people on the planet who really understand it. And yet, from a block-diagramatic approach, IMS has to win because it can clearly do it all, right?

But then there's Unified Memory Architecture, elegant in its relative simplicity; 802.11u, with the WLAN camp taking the lead; 802.21 Media Independent Handover Services; and assorted other input and output from 3GPP, 3GPP2, CDG and numerous alliances among key and startup players in this nascent but vital area.

Go ahead. I dare you to place a bet on this one. No convergence here. "Diversity" is a much better term to describe the situation. And even with this state of affairs, we have products available today from about 25 companieswith more arriving daily. Convergence is the land of opportunity, and there are an awful lot of stakes in the ground.

It's been said that the real beauty of standards lies in the fact that there are so many to choose from. And yet, this situation is clearly going to be untenable unless there is convergence in standards as well.

Consider E-911. It's clearly a case where there should be a single national standard. But the FCC did not set one. It's possible that one might roam into an area where one's phone just isn't equipped with the local technology.

Convergence is arguably even more important than E-911, and having multiple technologies will ultimately prove to be a bad idea. A single, uniform methodology is required. And, of course, the chip guys would like nothing more than to be in the same position here, with far fewer options, as they're in for .11n. As much as I think the claim of draft-compliant chip sets is silly, such components are at least on the path to wi-fi's convergence.

While at least some of the cellular carriers would prefer otherwise, the future of cellular is now inextricably bound to Wi-Fi. My fear is that the vision of seamless voice and data handoff between these two essentials will take many years longer to appear because of all the choice inherent in multiple large-scale standards efforts. In fact, we don't see a significant convergence market materializing for at least three more years.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

- Craig Mathias
Principal, Farpoint Group

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