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.