Wi-Fi

Sanity check: Can WiMAX remain an open platform or will it be hijacked by big telecoms?

The vendors who pioneered WiMAX have steadfastly held to the goal of making it an open platform with standards to ensure interoperability among different products. This week's Tech Sanity Check looks at whether WiMAX can remain open or if telecom vendors will hijack and fracture it the way they've done with cellular networks.

When you talk to the players in the WiMAX arena, you hear a surprisingly large number of references to things like "open architecture" and "open platform" and "interoperability testing," and you hear surprisingly few of the little digs against competitors that are such a common practice in most segments of the business technology sector.

Partly, this is because WiMAX hasn't fully hit the open market yet, and so the competition hasn't fully heated up. Nevertheless, as WiMAX prepares for wide deployment in 2008, the WiMAX platform itself is firmly grounded in open standards and interoperability. The question is whether it can remain that way.


This is the third installment of a three-part series on WiMAX. The first two are:


Attendees walk through the Expo at WiMAX World 2007 in Chicago on September 25-27. View the entire photo gallery.

The technology industry and many of its customers would like to see WiMAX avoid a situation like the one in the cellular industry -- especially in the United States -- where each of the big providers uses a walled-garden approach to its network. Sure, you can roam from one vendor's network to another vendor's network, but that's where interoperability stops. For example, in the cellular world, users can't easily transfer phones and other wireless devices between providers. The hardware is strictly tied to the service provider (although outside of the United States, the standard use of SIM cards makes devices more portable between carriers).The result is that most hardware and software innovation is tied to the carrier platform and doesn't happen across the entire cellular platform. That's what WiMAX wants to avoid. The leading players in the WiMAX ecosystem want to make WiMAX an open platform using the model of the Internet and TCP/IP, and the WiMAX Forum is the vehicle they have established as a standards body to make that happen. So far this has been successful. However, let's take a closer look at the big vendors in the WiMAX ecosystem and evaluate their commitment to open standards. Then, we'll look at the new challengers and potential entrants into the WiMAX space.

Openness of the current WiMAX leaders

  • Sprint -- Since Sprint joined the WiMAX Forum in February 2005, the cellular giant has been an outspoken proponent of network and device interoperability in WiMAX. Sprint's plans have been to build the Sprint WiMAX network for connectivity while also building a separate Sprint portal to help users best take advantage of Mobile WiMAX. In that sense, Sprint wants to evolve from a cellular carrier to a wireless ISP that also does voice. That vision has come under fire recently, as Sprint CEO Gary Forsee resigned last week under pressure from shortsighted investors who have grown impatient with Sprint's long-range WiMAX plans and want the company to focus on its cellular business. Forsee, along with Sprint's WiMAX leaders Barry West and Atish Gude, have shown commitment to open standards. But a change at the top could put pressure on that approach, as well as Sprint's WiMAX plans in general.
  • Intel -- Perhaps no other big vendor has been as influential in driving WiMAX toward open standards as Intel, which was one of the founding members of the WiMAX Forum. Let's be clear: Intel wants WiMAX to succeed because it believes that the key to bringing computers (many of them running Intel chips, of course) to the next billion users in emerging markets is to first establish a network that can connect them to the Internet. Intel is betting on WiMAX as the technology to deliver that connectivity and wants it to be an open platform that can be tapped by carriers large and small throughout the globe.
  • Motorola -- This longtime wireless powerhouse is betting heavily on WiMAX. Motorola is providing an end-to-end WiMAX solution to carriers because it can build out the backend network and radio infrastructure for WiMAX while also providing WiMAX client devices (e.g., broadband modems, multimode phones, PC cards, and USB dongles). Motorola won the contract to build out Sprint's Chicago WiMAX network, which will be one of the first two to deploy, along with the Baltimore/Washington D.C area. While Motorola is compliant with all interoperability standards, the company clearly wants to sell as many of its own client devices as possible. Its commitment to continued standards will likely remain firm because of its desire to sell its client devices to carriers even when it doesn't win the bid to build the backend network infrastructure.
  • Samsung -- Like Motorola, Samsung can both build the backend infrastructure for WiMAX networks and provide the client devices. Samsung is much better known for its devices and it is on the cutting edge of WiMAX devices with WiMAX-ready laptops, phones, and UMPCs. However, the company is making a major move in networks and using WiMAX as a venue to prove its commitment and strength in networking. Samsung has already built a WiMAX network in Korea (using a related standard called WiBro) and has won the bid to build Sprint's WiMAX networks in Boston and New York City. Naturally, Samsung will strive to provide end-to-end solutions whenever possible. However, it will want to build networks even when its client devices aren't used exclusively, and it will want to peddle its client devices even when it doesn't build the network, so that should ensure its continued commitment to open standards.
  • Alcatel-Lucent -- Predictably, this network stalwart is focusing its WiMAX efforts around building the backend WiMAX infrastructure. It has won more than 10 contracts with global carriers and is especially strong in Latin America. Alcatel-Lucent is steadfastly committed to an open architecture because its strategy depends on client devices made by other vendors.
  • Nortel -- Nortel also wants to be an end-to-end WiMAX provider like Samsung and Motorola, but its device strategy will likely be limited to broadband modems and PC Card and USB devices. Nortel has won WiMAX contracts in Taiwan and in southeastern Oklahoma in the United States, but it is not yet a major force in WiMAX, so it will likely follow the lead of others in open standards and interoperability.

Openness of the new WiMAX challengers

  • AT&T -- One of the terms of the merger between AT&T and BellSouth last year was that AT&T had to sell off more than 50 of the 2.5-GHz wireless licenses that BellSouth owned. That was prime wireless real estate for WiMAX, and AT&T sold them to WiMAX upstart Clearwire, which now owns more U.S. spectrum for WiMAX than any other carrier besides Sprint. However, AT&T still owns 22 licenses of 2.3-GHz spectrum and is planning to use them to offer Fixed WiMAX in a variety of areas in the southern United States in 2008. Last week, AT&T also struck a deal with Aloha Partners to buy a big chunk of 700 MHz spectrum, which will be used for mobile broadband services (either WiMAX or 3G). It's still unclear whether 700 MHz will ultimately be used for WiMAX, because it would require some adjustments to the technical standards of WiMAX. AT&T and T-Mobile are the only major U.S. carriers to support SIM cards, so AT&T is already among the more open U.S. wireless providers. However, AT&T will not be a major player in WiMAX unless the 700 MHz spectrum gets opened up for WiMAX use (which is very possible). At that point, AT&T could likely follow the Sprint path and move toward becoming a wireless ISP. AT&T already knows the ISP business because of its DSL service, and it has indicated that it would like to use WiMAX to deliver mobile data and video.
  • Nokia -- Through its Nokia-Siemens partnership, Nokia is preparing to build backend WiMAX networks, as well as gearing up to build WiMAX-ready client devices. At the end of September, Nokia announced that it would integrate Intel's WiMAX chip into its N-series Internet tablets, which will be released in mid-2008. Nokia tends to be philosophically aligned with open platforms -- as can be seen in its support for Linux, Symbian, and Mozilla -- so it's reasonable to expect it to be a proponent of WiMAX as an open platform.
  • Cisco -- Currently, Cisco is not a player in the WiMAX ecosystem, but there are rumors that it is planning to buy its way into WiMAX with an acquisition of Navini Networks or Alvarion. If and when it does join the WiMAX party, we should expect it to push for openness so that it has to build only one line of WiMAX network equipment.
  • Google -- While Google may seem like a strange fit on this list, Google has expressed its intention to bid in the FCC's auction of 700 MHz spectrum in the United States in February 2008. Google told that FCC that it would participate in the auction if the FCC agreed to four principle guidelines for the winner of the auction: open applications, open devices, open services, and open networks. The FCC agreed to the first two and CEO Eric Schmidt has indicated that Google will likely participate in the 700 MHz auction. If Google wins, it doesn't seem likely that it will become a wireless service provider, but it will likely lease the spectrum to carriers under Google's four guidelines to ensure that the spectrum itself becomes established as an open platform for wireless broadband.
  • Verizon -- Verizon might appear to be another strange name on this list since it has stated that it will not be adopting WiMAX but will instead focus on upgrading its 3G network and then transitioning it to LTE, a next-generation wireless technology that will rival WiMAX. However, Verizon is expected to be a major player in the upcoming 700 MHz auction, and it has publicly ridiculed the open access guidelines touted by Google and agreed to in lesser degree by the FCC. As GigaOm editor Om Malik succinctly put it, "Verizon thinks it can outbid even Google, win the auction and basically lock out all open-access backers." Google has since fired back at Verizon, calling into question its lobbying tactics. If Verizon comes out a winner in the 700 MHz auction, this could get really interesting, since Verizon unabashedly plans to continue operating in the walled-garden model. If Verizon wins a big chunk of 700 MHz, it could dedicate that spectrum to its closed-access 3G and LTE system and try to trump WiMAX. Alternatively, if WiMAX gains a lot of momentum in 2008, Verizon could take that big chunk of 700 MHz and build and/or buy its way into WiMAX and try to integrate some of its walled-garden tactics into a set of Verizon WiMAX services. The latter scenario isn't as likely as the 3G/LTE path, but if WiMAX starts to become the hot new thing next year, Verizon could find itself under strong pressure to respond -- and LTE is still several years away.

Sanity check

WiMAX was built from its foundation as an open platform and all of the current momentum is around developing it down a path of openness. It seems unlikely that any new developments will change the course of WiMAX as an open architecture. However, the upcoming 700 MHz auction, the moves of Verizon, and the issue of WiMAX over 700 MHz will all play a role in determining the level of openness that WiMAX will ultimately achieve and the extent to which it can thrive as an open wireless platform with the potential to revolutionize the mobile Internet and cellular networks.

For more on the 700 MHz auction, read the following:

How important do you think it is that WiMAX is established as an open platform? What do you think about the prospects of WiMAX as an open wireless platform? Will the issue of openness affect any of your purchase or deployment decisions? Join the discussion.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

20 comments
teamrep
teamrep

The degree wireless opens up depends on several factors but can be summed up as hinging on two: 1) the contention that open access will deliver more value: more user and organizational productivity and more entertainment value. 2) That consumers will push for openness even among 'walled garden' incumbent network operators. Other factors are also important including access to spectrum but these factors could force open incumbent spectrum so the perception that open access only applies to new spectrum could prove wrong. A way to illustrate why open access will put pressure on operators is to look at examples: Both 3G-LTE and WiMAX are IP based systems. These can be controlled with access constraints, filtered service, and QoS, but users expect service to be similar to the 'full Internet'. That is increasingly becoming the case for 3G data services as well. Devices are becoming more capable of running PC type applications. Because IP broadband is part of the the IT/networking environment. This puts makes more types of application and devices available. In other words, usersA will be able to buy devices, use programs and subscribe to services of their choosing. Users prefer choice, even to the extent that it seems to defy logic: Apple has fought for market share along side 'open access' PCs. There is little question that Apples products are more refined, and have fewer crashes and incompatibilities because they are designed and produced in a much more controlled fashion.. much like the cellular phone. But Apple also has fewer market participants to fuel innovation. And consumers have fewer choices to add-ons, software and upgrade. Some consumers have preferred Apple products, deriding the PC for all of it's many faults. But despite the faults, most individuals and organizations buy the open access PCs. Incumbent operators are already being pressured by the market both to provide Internet access and, once they do, to compete with 'over the top' IPTV, VoIP and other services that can go around attempts to wall off non-subscribed services. One point presented in a different WiMAX article was that 3G has a large installed base of networks as an advantage. That is not so much the case: LTE will use OFDMA/SC-OFDM which, similar to WiMAX, is not compatible with existing 3G networks. Due to cost advantages of IP networks, LTE will similar interface to incumbent networks. IP networks provide streamlined operation for roaming, billing and delivery of services that are compelling. Another point was that WiMAX does not have as much spectrum as 3G or that the spectrum is higher frequency. IEEE 802.16, 802.20 which can both be considered as part of WiMAX, (WiMAX Forum considers WiMAX open to use additional standards), can use any spectrum that is available. 802.16 was specified for 2 GHz and higher but has been revised to include sub 1 GHz as well. Admittance into IMT-2000 and deployment in multi-mode networks with 3G open up WiMAX to increased spectrum opportunities. WiMAX-LTE, WiMAX Long Term Evolution. The competition for next generation wireless has hardly begun. Systems will evolve to become smart distributed wireless broadband network that are self configuring and highly scalable. In other words, the nature of wireless networks and the business models they enable will drastically change. Many perceptions for how WiMAX will compete are only part of the story.

mdandml
mdandml

Wimax has huge backers. It?s nowhere. It?s a slush fund, nothing more. Who wants to pay more for the same experience they are getting right now.

Womble
Womble

Jason As usual, your analysis is succinct and to the point, very clear.I do note that Wimax is a global standard, and commentators in these threads are from countries all across the world. Perhaps your next blog could be on the global Wimax players, on the following basis *Majority of manufacturers are global players *Isle of Man is startup deployer of Wimax *Korea's WiBro standard *Australia's agressive rollout of WiMax, along with it's competitive environment *The impact of WiMax in developing countries *what is happening in South America All these things are of interest to the global members of this forum, and you should be able to call on members to provide some background - for example see this link http://www.australianit.news.com.au/story/0,24897,21935875-15306,00.html

jos
jos

Technically, I read in your article, WiMAX is better placed to offer cross border, cross device subscriptions. Meaning I can use a number of devices freely and in different countries with only one subscription. I would like a more global analysis to cover the probability of this happening for real. Since I live in two European countries at the same time (Holland and Germany), and regularly visit a third (France), I have to pay a staggering price for every MB data I consume "Abroad" (5 Euro) I would welcome a cross border (At least within the European union region) roaming solution that is more flexible and cheaper than the current GRPS/UMTS solution. On my wish list is for instance a car radio connected to the internet so I can listen to my favourite station all the way from Rotterdam to Berlin (about 800 KM)....

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

exactly the kinds of issues that WiMAX providers want to solve. Global roaming WiMAX service at high volume and low cost is the goal. How and when they get there will be the big question, but I do think it's inevitable. There are too many big players lining up to make this happen and a lot of demand from users.

hadi
hadi

Not knowing much about WiBro, the article focuses OPEL's mandate and efforts onto regional (I mean non-metro) deployments, I guess similar to Clearwire's direction to date. Is that where WiMax is at its best today? and if so how is Sprint ensuring high-speed coverage in high density areas (with multi-tenant buildings)?

Womble
Womble

I think it comes to last mile problems. ADSL2 is limited in the distance that it can deliver it's speeds from the point of interconnect, so it is effectivly limited to a fairly small radius. Fibre to the home would give virtually unlimited speed, but in areas with large rural areas and widely distributed populations it would be uncommercially expensive. Fibre to the node is a compromise that would address urban areas, but is limited if one carrier has a monopoly on the direct connect to the home Other possible technologies include IP over power, upgrades to Hybrid fibre Coaxial services (Pay TV) and combinations of above All these are very effective in dense population centres, but are uncommercial in rural areas. Wimax and 3G are products that deliver effective speeds over wireless systems. The forums here have discussed the pros and Cons of either system, but what seems will be the drivers are *cost per Mb *speed of throughput *coverage *mobility *connecting products We will see how the game plays out across the globe

mikeharlan.40222
mikeharlan.40222

I'm surprised that you didn't list Clearwire as a "current WiMAX leader," especailly since they've gone the farthest (as far as I know) in getting real WiMAX (or "WiMAX-ish") networks running and servicing a growing customer base. That said, I think htis is a very helpful summary of the current positions. Personally, I think Verizon's efforts to sidetrack WiMAX into the "Walled Garden" model will fail. Open access has already gone too far and has to many proponents (especially consumers) for them to "put the genie" back into their preferred bottle. The comparatively low capital cost per square mile covered make it relatively easy for entrepreneurs to put up local and regional WiMAX networks - if Verizon buys up the 700 MHz spectrum, they'll just find that customers migrate to open networks that other providers put up (especailly when customers start to see the advantages of WiMAX's badnwidth for upload as well as download.)

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Well, I did mention Clearwire in relation to the AT&T spectrum, and I nearly put them on the list of current players. I decided not to because I wanted to focus on big vendors that have a lot of clout since they could potentially influence the direction of WiMAX beyond just the technical considerations. That said, you're exactly right that Clearwire will play an important role in the development of WiMAX in the U.S., especially outside of the big metros.

jos
jos

Given the fact, stated in the article, that WiMAX is supposed to play an important role in emerging markets, it is a pity the article mainly analyses the players in the old markets with a strong focus on the US. I wonder what will happen if everyone except the US adopts WiMAX. Will it still be a viable solution, e.g. come to the US after a global rollout or will it fade away

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

WiMAX is definitely going international. I focused on the U.S. because the U.S. is taking a leadership role in WiMAX (although the related WiBro standard already took off in Korea last year). As I'm sure you know, the U.S. currently trails Europe and Asia in wireless development, so it is unique that it is playing a lead role here. Although the U.S. is going to get the widest rollout of WiMAX in 2008, there are also major WiMAX plans in action in Latin America, Taiwan, Australia, the Middle East, and many other places throughout the globe.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

WiMAX is definitely going international. I focused on the U.S. because the U.S. is taking a leadership role in WiMAX (although the related WiBro standard already took off in Korea last year). As I'm sure you know, the U.S. currently trails Europe and Asia in wireless development, so it is unique that it is playing a lead role here. Although the U.S. is going to get the widest rollout of WiMAX in 2008, there are also major WiMAX plans in action in Latin America, Taiwan, Australia, the Middle East, and many other places throughout the globe.

ghiacciomenta
ghiacciomenta

WiMAX will it be hijacked by big telecoms

Al_nyc
Al_nyc

It sure looks like Verizon is going to try to do exactly what you suggest. I hope the FCC doesn't let them get a monopoly so that they can be successful doing this. I use Verizon now for my wireless service. They have the best network coverage, which makes me happy. They also have the nasty habit of crippling phones so that you are forced to use their service, at extra cost, to get similar functionality as what they crippled on your phone.

mdandml
mdandml

Wimax is a glorified Corporate Slush fund that will NEVER get off the ground.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

there's already a live WiMAX network in Korea and the WiMAX networks in Chicago and Washington D.C. are already finished and ready to start accepting their first early-deployment users this fall, I think you're missing some facts.

hadi
hadi

Do we know if the initial deployments for e.g. in DC, are targeted to mobile users or fixed (i.e. competing with Cable, Fios etc.)? or both? does it offer enough BW to compete with FIOS?

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

The Sprint WiMAX solution will be a combination of Mobile and Fixed WiMAX. And, one of the cool things (and a Sprint VP confirmed this for me) is that you'll be able to have one ISP account and have Fixed at your home or small biz and then also be able to roam around with Mobile WiMAX on your laptop. And the price is expected to be very competitive. In terms of bandwidth, it's capable of up to about 10 Mbps, but I doubt it will be that much in the real world. The expectations are that you will get about 2 Mbps Mobile and more than that for fixed (maybe 5-10) but that's still up in the air. This definitely won't match the kind of bandwidth that you get with FiOS. The portability will be better, though, for those who need that.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Here's my analysis: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/hiner/?p=558 How important do you think it is that WiMAX is established as an open platform? What do you think about the prospects of WiMAX as an open wireless platform? Will the issue of openness affect any of your purchase or deployment decisions?

PhilippeV
PhilippeV

ALthough licences for WiMAX have been sold and deployed, there's no hurry in deploying it. In fact the real battle is not in WiMAX but in building FTTx everywhere to replace the copper wires almost everywhere; from this huge fiber network, it will be very easy to deploy mobile solitions using low power emissions. WiMAX will probably remain a niche market for use in VERY MOBILE applications such as on major high speed roads and in airplanes. WiMAX is not well suited for use in planes, but possibly for use on high speed long distance roads, and for the professional market of track drivers and for managing the logistic. Most people will need mobile applications at humane size, mobile but without very frequent switches from one cell to another. The future of WiMAX in Europe is most probably for a low power design to extend what WiFi offers at much lower speeds. a low power WiMAX cell providing 25 MBps to less clients will certainly have the best profile to work as a transparent extension of the fixed fiber network (currently being deployed at 100Mbps, but easily extensible later to 1 Gigabit/s, when GPON divisions will be reduced, or when the GPON main links will have their bandwidth extended by using another frequency modulation one multimode fibers. The same will probably occur too in Japan and Korea, and in the western area of Russia or in the Far Eastern coast of Siberia, China, in India, and probably in large parts of Central and South America (Sao paulo, Uruguay, PAraguay, Argentina, and the northern coasts of Chile. Normal WiMAX will remain interesting to cover large rural areas or dispersed areas like archipelagos of the Pacific or in Indonesia, or in the Carribeans due to the importance of harbours and maritime traffic, where nearby fiber access will be inacessible, and interconnections with the worldwide backbone will be very costly due to most content produced and hosted elsewhere, nd being limited by the capacity of transoceanic submarine cables. I fear that WiMAX best fits the needs to cover US, Canada, and rural areas of Brasil, Russia, Australia, and giving some minimum access to most of Africa where fiber deployment is not ready to explode, in absence of a prior and strong enough copperwired market. In US the problem will exist with roaming people connecting from state to state or between two airports. In large US cities, low power WiMAX could be much enough and will need many small low-power cells with few clients, but that will be easily deployed at very low cost from the existing fiber network, possibly integrated in the equipement used on fixed installations in homes, restaurants, companies. I see a future for the deployment of a fast mobile network similar to FON, and completed by operators, using devices with so small power that it will not require any licence, for covering more than about 200 meters around a hotspot, i.e. a bit more than existing WiFi. And it will be deployed privately by transporters in public transportation systems as well... Operators will develop interoperability access networks so that you'll be able to connect to your personnal account from any hotspot. The key is not WiMAX, except for about 10-15 years where it will be a luxury and costly access mode; in the mean time, and for longer term, mobile solutions will use fiber networks as large as today's copper networks that are now in end of life. The battle is not in the infrastructure on the public domain but in getting access to the private buildings and getting the authorizations from the home owners: operators are now in competition to get the maximum number of long term exclusive contracts with them, and then require other competing operators to rent their newly-installed access fibers. This will give them exclusive shares of markets for the next 20 years after, until interoperability and deregulation forces them to share their equipements for fair competition.