Battle of the bands

The fight for supremacy of the digital airwaves is hotting up with both next-generation voice and cellular technologies, and their backers, vying to establish themselves in the industry. Eliot Beer assesses the likely winners, and losers, in this battle.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  March 29, 2007

This year will see at least one wireless technology make it into the mainstream, possibly followed by a second. WiMax is very firmly on its way, and pressure is building behind Ultra Wideband (UWB), a short-range but highly-sophisticated system currently under development.

Industry analysts believe WiMax will excel at long-range delivery of high-bandwidth connections, while UWB is set to replace USB in the long-term as the preferred way to connect external devices to PCs.

These changes are still in their early stages, but it does raise the issue of just what will happen to the rather more established WiFi technology?

A large part of WiFi's success came from Intel's decision to build the technology into its laptop chipsets, effectively making the technology ubiquitous among portable devices.

Now the chip giant is set to do the same for WiMax - a technology it has a considerable interest in seeing succeed - in its next-generation mobile chipsets.

At the same time, 3G and 3.5G cellular HSDPA services have finally matured to offer comparable data rates to many fixed-line internet connections - speeds of 1.8Mbit/s are becoming common around the world.

In the Middle East a number of providers, including Wataniya Telecom in Kuwait and Etisalat in the UAE, have launched or are planning to launch HSPDA services in the near future. So where now for WiFi?

"My personal feeling is that WiFi, in terms of a commercial proposition, is getting squeezed; on the one hand, it's getting squeezed by cellular technologies which are moving into the data space and offer fast downlink speeds," says Fabio d'Emilio, vice president of operations in EMEA for LCC, a wireless and cellular consultancy firm.

"On the other hand, you have WiMax technologies such as 802.16e, which will offer mobility as well as speed. Mobile WiMax will also squeeze the cellular technologies, but the shift will come with the move to one standard for mobile and high-bandwidth data services."

D'Emilio argues that by having both fixed, nomadic and mobile facilities in one chipset, mobile device vendors can reduce cost and complexity in their products - a major factor for devices such as mobile phones or PDAs, where cost, size and power consumption are all critical issues.

One of the trends that the market has been seeing with mobile devices is the increased number of radio systems in one device - a typical smartphone may now feature GSM, UMTS, WiFi and Bluetooth capability.

Faced with this, the prospect of having one WiMax radio and one UWB radio (which is set to become the next generation of Bluetooth) is very attractive, both for vendors and users.

But both of these developments will only reach critical mass in the longer term - at least two years, according to Noel Kirkaldy, director of wireless broadband for MEA at Motorola.

He sees WiMax firmly in the backhaul category for the foreseeable future, with commercial services coming in over a longer time.

"When we look at WiMax, we rarely see it as the end point at this stage - you may have devices that will support WiFi and WiMax, but primarily we look at subscribers being an end-point subscriber. Initially we'll see outdoor units - customer premises equipment - then it will move into desktop and plug-and-play units, then to PCMCIA cards and built into PCs. At this point commercial mobility services will become a possibility, but we're looking at the end of 2008 for these to roll out."

At this stage, it is still unclear how WiMax access packages will be priced and structured, but what is emerging is a consensus among the big names behind WiMax that at all costs service providers must avoid the mistakes made with UMTS and 3G services.

Martin Reason, leader for Northern Europe and Middle East CSS at Nortel, says potential WiMax operators are very clear they will be competing with wired services such as DSL, as well as wireless and cellular offerings.

"We're involved with a number of companies in studies about how to roll out a WiMax offering to the market; but the other aspect to remember is that we will see a lot of new operators come in to the market with WiMax," says Reason.

"A lot of the traditional operators are still discussing whether to go WiMax or not, and a lot of the licences are being snapped up by companies we wouldn't have expected to see as operators."

On the commercial side then, WiMax looks to be a formidable threat to current WiFi hotspot providers - at the very least, the new technology will shift the market for mobile data access dramatically in years to come.

But on the enterprise side, things are rather different. For a start, WiMax is a much less practical option for private organisations to deploy, thanks to the strict licensing requirements likely to be introduced in the Middle East, as well as the complexity of planning and setting up a carrier-grade network.

In the enterprise space, WiFi has a much more interesting value proposition, which will only improve with the advent of certified 802.11n equipment. The new ‘n' standard will offer wire-speed or greater throughput, as well as a greater range. But even here, there is potential for the newer technology to encroach, according to LCC's d'Emilio.

"I think that 802.11n is definitely going to increase the usage of wireless networks within the enterprise - and the home," he says.

"But I really feel that the philosophy that will persist around that really sees WiFi as an extension of the wired LAN connection. If you take a big enterprise model, depending on how big it is, you may be tempted to switch to WiMax, for two reasons: one, the non-line-of-sight capability; and two, the quality of service," adds d'Emilio."WiMax allows you to manage the QoS you deliver to the end-device - this makes deploying applications such as voice over internet protocol (VoIP) much more straight-forward."

While this may be an option for the very largest of enterprises, organisations without the size or the clout needed to implement WiMax and make it viable will almost certainly not risk dipping their toes into that particular networking pool.

So while in the short and medium term it may well be difficult to dislodge WiFi, the longer term seems more uncertain.

But interestingly, in the very long term, such issues about which standard to choose may no longer be a factor for any user of wireless devices. Researchers are currently exploring the potential around so-called soft radios, which use a limited set of components and maintain almost all their processing in software.

This opens up the possibility of radios negotiating with each other for the most effective use of spectrum - and the effective elimination of competing wireless standards.

Quite which approach will win out is not yet clear, but the industry is now on the path towards total wireless convergence.

"At one point in time - and this is going to take several years before we get near it - all of these different radio technologies will more or less end up merging into one radio technology," comments d'Emilio. "The big question is whether this will end up evolving into a CDMA-type technology, so 3.5G or 4G cellular technology, or will it be along the OFDM lines as used by WiMax. I don't think this is something the industry has sorted out yet, but today you can see these two moving towards trying to converge into one technology."

In the meantime, the Middle East will have to watch and wait to see how the introduction of WiMax impacts other wireless technologies. But regional telcos are not shy of rolling out new systems - especially if they are looking to boost their high-tech credentials - so by this time in 2009, the wireless landscape may well look very different than it does today.

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