Battle of the new wireless standards

21 Oct 2009

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In the looming “Battle Royale” between wireless-broadband standards that will supposedly provide us all with uber-fast broadband, will WiMax beat LTE to the pass? Or will it be the other way round?

With providers across the world already providing WiMax "city-wide hotspot" technology and Intel set to introduce WiMax chipsets in 2010, is it safe to conclude that Long Term Evolution (LTE) may become a pipe dream?

Not so, say some of LTE’s most vehement supporters – mostly 3G mobile operators – who describe WiMax as the “Betamax of the 21st century.”

The claim

Both WiMax and LTE claim to be fourth-generation (4G) technologies that will provide future broadband consumers with speeds from 8Mbps today to 50Mbps and upwards in the next five years.

The reality is that across the world applications are putting the squeeze on bandwidth and users with services below 3Mbps may soon find their options limited in the evolving internet world.

Proponents of LTE, mainly network manufacturers and 3G mobile-broadband operators who claim they just need to do a software upgrade and some infrastructure fixing to be up and running, are vehement in their conviction that LTE is the way to go.

But can it be that simple? Independent network planning consultancy Aircom International revealed the economic reality of LTE migration facing mobile operators around the world – as much as US$1.78 billion for a Tier 1 US operator in the first year. Ouch. Especially at a time when most capital expenditure (capex) is on hold and the consumer electronics industry, not to mention the mobile-device business, are in the doldrums.

Looking nationwide

So can WiMax be the silver bullet for countries where broadband penetration is poor due to geographical and population density?

During the week Imagine, founded by telecoms entrepreneur Sean Bolger, announced it is to invest €100 million in upgrading its technology, a move that could result in the creation of up to 200 new jobs. In a crowded room at Dublin’s Mansion house and flanked by senior executives from technology giants Intel and Motorola, Bolger said he plans to cover 90pc of the country by 2012 with WiMax services. At launch it will be available in Dublin, Athlone, Waterford and Sligo.

Bolger said Imagine’s WiMax service – which will debut at 8Mbps – is capable today of reaching 17Mbps and higher. The pricing for consumers and businesses that will adopt the service will be unveiled next week, but Bolger promised it will come at a lower price than current fixed-line broadband services. In front of Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD he pointed out that Ireland has the highest fixed-telephone costs in the world and at €25.47, line rental is 70pc higher here than the European average.

Fibre is there

“4G broadband is not about speed but being more competitive.” He went on to say that Ireland has plenty of fibre, “now the problem is connecting to that fibre.” Bolger said WiMax could solve that access problem.

One thing is for certain, WiMax has some pretty impressive backers. Last year, US telecoms giants Sprint and Clearwire, as well as tech firms Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks, all agreed to invest $3.2 billion in a new mobile-broadband company, which will deploy a nationwide WiMax network to provide broadband to consumers and businesses. In Ireland, Imagine is being supported by Intel, HP and Motorola.

Intel Ireland general manager Jim O’Hara said WiMax chips will debut on notebook computers from next year and that these chips will do for WiMax what Centrino did for Wi-Fi. “Six years ago, we debuted Centrino chips. People at the time didn’t appreciate the opportunities of using Wi-Fi.” O’Hara went on to say that WiMax could be one of the fundamental building blocks for enabling greater connectivity and bridging the digital divide.

Network connection

“If you think about the way kids work today, they are all connected to the network. That is the way the world is turning. WiMax is a game-changing technology for how we work, live and play. We can remove the physical geographic barriers and leapfrog ahead.”

Steve McCaffrey, head of Motorola EMEA, said his company is contracted to deploy 350 WiMax base stations for Imagine by 2012.

“WiMax and LTE will each have a strong future because they will each be important for resolving the access problems where fibre can’t reach the home or premises. Broadband-based applications of the future will demand significant bandwidth. Today’s digital natives, the Millennials, who live online at all times, at home or on the move with the latest wireless devices, have a big appetite for broadband and applications. They won’t tolerate ‘adequate’ connections.”

‘Kilmer Peak’

The man in charge of the global deployment of WiMax chipsets – codenamed "Kilmer Peak" – is a Donegal man called Kevin Jones. “We see these chipsets going into notebooks, netbooks, smart phones and mobile-internet devices (MIDs) of all sizes from next year.” Jones pointed to deployments of WiMax around the world including the ISP Yota in Russia which has more than 250,000 subscribers using the technology and they are getting a sustained 10Mbps. “The best way to think about WiMax,” added Jones, “think about Wi-Fi hotspots the size of a city.”

IDA Ireland, in particular, sees the collaboration between big industry giants like Intel and Motorla and with indigenous ISPs as key to resolving Ireland’s digital dilemma. “This investment will add a key piece to our national infrastructure and help drive greater competitiveness in the telecommunications sector,” said CEO Barry O’Leary. “It clearly demonstrates the benefits that accrue to Ireland when multinational and indigenous companies collaborate to develop and roll out key technologies.”

While it is clear there’s a lot of passion and drive behind WiMax, if it achieves all it promises then it could be an irresistible force.

Remember 3G broadband?

But what about 3G broadband, the technology that helped to make Ireland’s troubled broadband situation appear respectable? More than a third of broadband, the 1.2 million broadband connections in this country, are mobile broadband via 3G, and the main players in this particular market, 3 Ireland, Eircom/Meteor, O2 and Vodafone, are all planning to upgrade to 4G Long-Term Evolution in the near future.

Indeed if you ask Robert Finnegan, chief executive of 3, 3G in its present form has an important role to play and will do so for some time. He pointed out that 3G mobile broadband debuted only three years ago with 1.2Mbps and today can carry speeds of 7.2Mbps. The technology will soon move to 14.4Mbps and Finnegan believes that before LTE even arrives 3G has the potential to give us speeds of up to 28.8Mbps.

3 has 90pc 3G coverage of the country and earlier this year was awarded the Government’s €220-million National Broadband Scheme contract to ensure the remaining 10pc of Ireland deemed commercially not viable by fixed-line operators is connected to broadband. In the past few years, 3 and its parent Hutchison Whampoa, have invested €600 million in their Irish network.

On overselling

At the Imagine WiMax launch, Bolger was dismissive of 3G arguing it is not delivering against the speeds claimed by companies. “The average Irish consumer is getting between 1Mbps and 3Mbps if they are lucky. It is a big mistake by the mobile industry to be overselling 3G. They claim speeds of up to 7Mbps – that would be the highest speed at the highest level if you were the only person in the country using it.”

But Finnegan said otherwise: “He (Bolger) doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He would say that because the investment he would need to make to go into 3G right now would be too high. WiMax has been called the Betamax of the telecoms industry.

“3G still has some way to go. We are currently at 7.2Mbps and next year we will go to 14.4Mbps. We work very closely with Nokia Siemens, we are trialling a new technology called iHSPA and it is working extremely well. Another first for Ireland and a first for 3 worldwide.

“The current technology will take us to 14Mbps and after that you are looking at LTE. The technology we have in place is future-proofed for the next four years. LTE will evolve – within a two-year period we will be looking at 28.8Mbps and higher.”

LTE move requires software upgrade

Moving to LTE, Finnegan explained, will require a hardware and software upgrade but will cost nowhere near the US$1.7 billion investment that analysts reckon will be typical.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the battle-fierce format war between VHS and Betamax video players was anecdotally settled when the porn industry chose the more affordable VHS. Not entirely so; in the end, Sony’s proud but rigid stance on OEM licensing was a bridge too far for Betamax. But what will decide the outcome of this particular war?

The answer will be probably be marketing – there are big guns behind WiMax and there are big guns behind LTE. WiMax will get a considerable boost when Intel rolls out the first WiMax chipsets next year, while LTE’s proponents already have vast numbers of people using 3G in its present form.

My view is similar to that of Motorola’s McCaffrey: the applications will drive demand for bandwidth and emerging generations of digital natives will no longer put up with connectivity that is just "adequate".

Or let’s look at it like this: when we built the M50 motorway with just two lanes, some bright spark decided we’d never need more than two lanes. How wrong they were.

By John Kennedy

Photo: The battle is on: Both WiMax and LTE claim to be fourth-generation technologies that will provide future broadband consumers with speeds from 50Mbps and upwards in the next five years.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com