WiMax products raise stakes in looming 4G battle

Lots of new products exhibited at this year's WiMAX World conference

Looking around the exhibit hall floor at this year's WiMax World conference, you could see something new. Products. Lots of them.

"There are dozens of products on the floor," principle of wireless consulting firm, The Farpoint Group, Craig Mathias, said. "WiMax is much more real this year. There's a lot more confidence that WiMax can do what its proponents claim."

There's also a lot more being claimed, partly because of this surge in products. This year, in keynotes and panels, WiMax promoters more explicitly challenged mobile operators for the future of a digital, all-IP, mobile broadband network.

The two rival mobile standards are Long Term Evolution (LTE), which is the direction guided by the 3G Partnership Project for WCDMA networks, and CDMA1x EV-DO Revision C, guided by the 3GPP2 and championed by Qualcomm.

"We can deliver one-tenth the cost per bit of 3G operators today," director of marketing for WiMax at Nortel, Bruce Gustafson, said. "That makes for a pretty compelling business case for an operator. If WiMax vendors can deliver more performance at less cost, then the [mobile] operators will have to respond."

The three technologies have much in common: they're IP-based; support the OFDM modulation scheme for more efficient use of the radio spectrum; use multiple input multiple output (MIMO) to boost throughput and range; and boast smart antenna technology.

WiMax is the industry implementation of two IEEE standards for broadband wireless: 802.16d for fixed and 802.16e for mobile. The latter, when full implemented and certified in about mid-2007, will incorporate MIMO and smart antennas to support two-way, multi-gigabit wireless connections even to fast-moving vehicles.

Proponents were not shy in drawing the conclusions of WiMax's more efficient spectrum use, and the fact that its core silicon benefits from Moore's Law - steady and significant improvements in price-performance year after year.

"WiMax is not a replacement for cellular voice," president and chairman of the WiMax Forum, Ron Resnick told attendees. "It's a 4G data service that complements 3G voice and data services."

Despite that disclaimer, the rest of Resnick's keynote speech made it clear that WiMax has the bandwidth and cost advantages to attempt to displace both over the long term.

"Mobile WiMax is out today," he said. "It does what LTE promises to do two to three years down the road."

Resnick also revealed that the WiMax Forum has launched a working group to define and coordinate national and international roaming agreements between service providers. The forum will act as an intermediary to set up these deals, he said. As WiMax-based 4G services are rolled out, subscribers won't be limited by their providers' footprints.

"WiMax really is data and voice, and video downloads," Farpoint's Mathias said. "WiMax will work great in that environment. But so will LTE, and they [mobile operators] have a very large installed base."

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