Vodafone doesn't want to miss out on the next big wireless technology, no matter what it is.
The mobile phone operator, one of the world's largest, announced Thursday its decision join the WiMax Forum, which is busy working on standards and specifications for a new generation of ultra-fast broadband wireless communication services.
WiMax technology, in particular the new mobile variant currently under development, is viewed as a wireless Internet alternative to the cellular-based LTE (long term evolution) technology supported by numerous mobile phone operators -- including Vodafone.
"We are technology neutral," said Vodafone spokesman Mark Street. "We're interested in both WiMax and LTE. Our decision to join the forum is about being in a position to take advantage of future technology opportunities."
As a forum member, Vodafone hopes "to play a role in shaping end-to-end specifications," Street said.
At the 3GSM World Congress earlier this year, Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin raised a few eyebrows when he told an auditorium full of mobile phone executives that the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) community is moving too slowly on defining an LTE standard and that the industry needs to move faster before others eat its lunch. He urged mobile phone operators to prepare for an eventual paradigm shift.
"Vodafone is hedging its bets," said Sara Harris, senior analyst with Strategy Analytics Ltd. "No one really knows yet what LTE will be, unlike WiMax, which is here and real. Vodafone clearly doesn't want to be left behind."
Alex Green, market research director for wireless at IMS Research, agrees. Time to market, he wrote in a comment, could be a compelling reason to deploy mobile WiMax systems, based on the IEEE 802.16e standard. The systems "are for the large part available now, although not yet certified," he wrote.
WiMax is expected to open the door to a new generation of wireless operators that aren't shackled by legacy voice-centric, circuit-switched networks but rather equipped with all IP (Internet Protocol) packet-switched technology designed to satisfy demands of data hungry users.
With its new HSPA (high-speed packet access) networks, Vodafone expects to meet demand for mobile broadband services for the next five years, according to Street.
The company's strategy is to be a supplier of both fixed and mobile broadband wireless services, he said.
Vodafone participated in a recent LTE test, and in June, it deployed its first WiMax network in Malta, according to Street.
In addition to the WiMax deployment in Malta, Vodafone is observing how the technology is being tested by partners in France and Bahrain, he said.
The U.K. company may choose to offer WiMax in developing markets such as India and LTE in more developed markets, according to Street. "We've made no decision; we'll look at each market individually," he said.
The prospects for WiMax to play a key role in the future development of mobile services "are better in those parts of the world where large numbers of people do not yet have access to [telephones] or the Internet," John Delaney, a principle analyst at Ovum, wrote in a research note.