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Minor role awaits WiMAX in next-gen cellular

Posted: 01 Mar 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:WiMAX 4G Wi-Fi? wireless technology W-CDMA? CDMA LTE MIMO? Qualcomm WiMAX?

Bechtel's MacLeod sees likely 20 percent share.

WiMAX won't grab the brass ring as the technology that defines 4G cellular systems. But it is likely to capture a healthy minority stake in that emerging sector, and it could help bring Internet access to a new generation of consumer devices.

That was the assessment that emerged from last January's gathering of the Wireless Communications Association International (WCA), a lobbying group whose members generally promote WiMAX. While proponents, including Intel Corp., have fueled plenty of hype about the broadband wireless technology, the confab made it clear that WiMAX holds real, though limited, promise and faces several challenges.

Even WiMAX proponents in the WCA admitted that Long Term Evolution (LTE), a follow-on to cellular's GSM standard, will command the lion's share of 4G cellular systems. That's because the huge breadth of GSM service providers will be able to roll their subscribers over from today's W-CDMA to LTE when the time comes. LTE is still being defined.

There are a whopping 122 commercial W-CDMA networks?with 70 million subscribers?operating in 55 countries and using 407 distinct handsets today, reported Jake MacLeod, chief technology officer of Bechtel Communications Inc. "There's a huge momentum for existing wireless services," said MacLeod, whose company builds public networks for carriers.

By contrast, no carriers have deployed the 802.16e mobile WiMAX spec officially defined at last year's WCA meeting. That's because carriers decided they wanted to deploy a 2G version of the spec supporting the same multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antenna technology that will be used in LTE and in rival technology under development at Qualcomm Inc.

Systems for that version of WiMAX won't be certified and available until late this year. In addition, the technology faces nagging spectrum debates that impede some uses.

MacLeod said carriers Sprint Nextel, startup Clearwire and Russia's Sistema have committed to WiMAX, while Cingular and Vodafone are backing LTE. AT&T, BT and Verizon may use WiMAX as an adjunct to their fiber-to-the-home deployments, and satellite broadcasters are considering WiMAX as a back channel, he added.

Long term, "LTE will garner the market share advantage in 4G cellular, but WiMAX could grab a very significant portion of it?perhaps as much as 20 percent. That's a gargantuan market globally," said MacLeod, whose company has hundreds of active network deployments worldwide, including some of the largest cellular systems.

Given the delays, Sprint Nextel has scaled back 2007 spending plans on WiMAX from $1 billion to "up to $800 million," said Philip Solis, a senior mobile analyst at ABI Research. "Systems and service providers wanted to make sure they got .16e right before it went out the door, and the result has been something of a mess."

"We will be demonstrating .16e around the end of the year to show our customers we have this capability, but real deployments are two to three years out for most customers," said Majed Sifri, chief executive of systems maker Redline Communications Inc.

Like most WiMAX systems companies, Redline is focusing its 2007 business on deploying fixed-access systems using the 802.16d standard in developing countries as an alternative to DSL. Nevertheless, Sifri said that "two-thirds of our engineers are now focused on .16e."

'd-to-e upgrade
In a sign of the continuing development work, Navini Networks announced it has ported its MIMO and beam-forming technology from CDMA-based systems to its mobile WiMAX gear. The company uses a group of eight antennas in a 2-by-4 MIMO arrangement along with proprietary algorithms running on Texas Instruments DSPs to achieve an extra 9dB to 18dB for its link budget, said Yasser Hannush, product-marketing manager for Navini.

For its part, Sierra Monolithics Inc. showed its first dual-band (2.5GHz and 3.5GHz) RF ICs supporting 802.16d and .16e standards as well as 2-by-1 MIMO. The chips will be available this quarter at prices that have not been published.

Qualcomm may play the role of spoiler in what some see as a two-way race between LTE and WiMAX. The company planned to demonstrate as early as this quarter its plans for a technology beyond W-CDMA that could be a contender for 4G cellular.

Uma Jha, a director of product management at Qualcomm, said the company will demo products that deliver 10Mbps of data and have better spectral efficiency than WiMAX. Qualcomm has been working with partners such as Lucent and Samsung to get its version of OFDM accepted by the IEEE 802.20 group as well as the 3GPP2 group's Ultra Mobile Broadband cellular standards effort.

"We can build WiMAX as easily as anyone else, but we don't see the compelling value," said Jha.

Qualcomm has faced legal actions over its alleged extraction of exorbitant royalties for CDMA technology used in 2G and 3G chips and systems. By contrast, a WiMAX Forum executive said no one company holds a corner on the patents behind WiMAX. Those 1,550 patents are held by 330 companies, and three-quarters of the ones with more than 10 patents are already WiMAX Forum members, according to an analysis done by the group.

The good news for WiMAX backers is that interoperability testing is moving forward and new chipsets are on the horizon. Chad Pralle, VP of marketing for SR Telecom, a WiMAX system maker, said his company expects to see versions of Intel's Rosedale-2 chipset that implement both .16d and .16e. "People want to see a d-to-e upgrade where you just push a button and don't require any new hardware. Last year, there were no chipsets for this upgrade," said Pralle.

Separately, Intel reaffirmed its plans to field combined Wi-Fi/WiMAX modules and low-power x86 CPUs starting in 2008 that will power a new generation of ultramobile consumer devices linked to the Web. Intel will show as early as next month devices that will halve power consumption compared with today's handhelds, the company said.

Intel expects to follow up next year with devices offering a tenfold reduction in power draw. The 2008 devices will also include very low-power x86 CPUs now in design under Gadi Singer, who worked on both the Itanium server and the Xscale cellular processors at Intel.

"These end systems will not be phones or PCs," said Anand Chandrasekher, the general manager of Intel's ultramobility group. "We believe that with a 4-inch display, you can see a full Internet screen that is very readable. To unleash this, you need broadband wireless, and we believe that is WiMAX."

- Rick Merritt
EE Times




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