Push to WiMAX

WiMAX is at a critical juncture - the technology is ready, but it needs spectrum. Intel is currently on a drive to lay out its WiMAX vision to regulators around the world, and its first stop was in Cairo to talk to regulators in the Middle East and Africa. Eliot Beer was there to sit in on the discussions.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  November 30, 2006

Intel's long march towards WiMAX is finally starting to bear some fruit, in the form of a number of live implementations and trials around the world. But now that WiMAX has become a viable technological prospect, Intel has another battle on its hands - to secure viable spectrum allocations for the system.

In many parts of the world with high levels of competition in the mobile telecoms space, WiMAX spectrum allocation has become a political subject; many existing 3G manufacturers and operators, already struggling to make a return on the often huge 3G licence and infrastructure investments, feel threatened by WiMAX and are working to frustrate efforts to include spectrum provision for WiMAX, according to Intel.

This has led the WiMAX Forum and Intel to push for WiMAX to be included in the IMT-2000 specifications that outline 3G standards around the world. This would give WiMAX access to the 2.5GHz spectrum, currently covered by IMT-2000 but largely under-utilised for commercial purposes — and ideal for mobile WiMAX.

WiMAX supporters are on a tight deadline for this — there are a number of hurdles to deal with in order to get the proposals ready for voting at the ITU's World Radiocommunication Conference in October 2007. But where does this leave regulators and operators in the Middle East and Africa, where competition is not as much of an issue as in other areas of the world?

Intel has been making an effort this year to engage with regulators; recently it held the first of a series of ‘training days’ on regulatory issues around WiMAX, as well as other RF standards. An event in Cairo attracted around 20 regulators representing 12 countries from the Middle East and Africa. Intel’s aim is to try and increase levels of understanding among regulators - and also try and ease the path of WiMAX spectrum allocation.

“I don't think all regulators do necessarily know what WiMAX is; we get comments and questions from a lot of regulators who are very interested and want to know more,” says Graham MacDonald, wireless standards and regulations manager, technology policy and standards, EMEA government affairs at Intel. “Obviously, if they’re having questions on WiMAX, which is at the forefront of the press and marketing efforts, then I suspect they'd have questions on the details of other standards, such as Wi-Fi, Ultra Wideband (UWB) and so on. That said, there are a number of administrations within the Middle East and Africa that are active within the ITU at a global level, and of course they're the ones who tend to lead discussions in the region.”

MacDonald singles out Syria and Iran — not normally countries noted for international cooperation — as two of the most active ITU members from the Middle East; both countries’ representatives hold or have held leading positions within the organisation. He also says a few countries in the MEA region do respond to industry pressure, such as from 3G operators or manufacturers — MacDonald says the WiMAX Forum does not target countries in the same way at this stage. But many regulators have not had cause to investigate some of the issues around technologies such as WiMAX — hence Intel’s events.

“The intention of events like these — this is the first we’ve done — is to bring as many diverse administrations, some of whom will be up to speed and others who are very interested in getting up to speed, into one place to allow us to present a balanced regulatory viewpoint of the world, and what we would like as a regulatory regime,” explains MacDonald. “And then offline, these guys can have discussions around coffee, lunch, dinner and so on - how often would you get someone from the UAE linking up with a regulator from South Africa? It does not happen unless you can get them in the same place at the same time.”

Much of the presentation from MacDonald and others served to outline the background to Intel's drive for WiMAX regulatory acceptance within the ITU; essentially the battle for 2.5GHz for mobile and 3.5GHz for fixed WiMAX, and the “compromise” option of bringing WiMAX within IMT-2000. Intel representatives also discussed some of the technical background to WiMAX, and outlined how it might be used.

The regulators' questions at the event centred on the current levels of interest around WiMAX. “What are the expectations for growth of WiMAX, and who is investing?” was one question from the regulator of a large GCC state. MacDonald said there was a lot of interest from 3G operators in general, but a reluctance to become the first movers. He also highlighted telcos such as BT in the UK and Nextel in the USA, which had firm adoption plans, and pointed to the actual cost of US$40,000 for a WiMAX base station as allowing a large number of organisations entry into the market.

Regulators were also interested in how additional WiMAX standards, such as those coming from ETSI, would add to the technology when a working implementation in the form of WiBro (the South Korean variant, currently enjoying success in its home country at 2.3GHz) was on the market. Intel representatives pointed out that WiBro falls within the defined WiMAX standards, and the two are interoperable.

One of the key issues from the regulatory perspective, as vocalised by the regulators at the Cairo meeting, is how WiMAX will cope with straddling two or more areas of spectrum. “If we go with 3.5GHz now, will we be stuck later?” asked one regulator. If Intel's vision of WiMAX spectrum comes to fruition, this should not leave regulators stranded - fixed WiMAX would sit at 3.5GHz, while mobile would occupy 2.5GHz, with its better penetration properties making it more suitable for use within buildings.

MacDonald admits one of the problems WiMAX has had is its positioning to the market and regulators. He says the starting position was to push the technology as more than 3G, but not quite 4G. But this led to rejection within the ITU thanks, MacDonald says, to hostile 3G supporters.

“So we had a dilemma — do we wait, position WiMAX as best we can now, and ensure it becomes part of 4G? The timescales for that are 2012-14, and we need spectrum now,” says MacDonald. “So we came up with a compromise: we tried to position WiMAX within IMT-2000, noting that any of the 3G technologies can evolve. This is a win-win for the industry as a whole, but not the best solution for Intel or the WiMAX Forum, by any means.”

Looking at fixed versus mobile WiMAX, and the possibility that the fixed 'd' standard may be left behind by the newer mobile standard, MacDonald is clear that mobile ‘e’ is an addition to, not a replacement for, 'd': “Fixed WiMAX — 802.16-2004, or 16d — is the standard, and 802.16e - mobile WiMAX — is an enhancement to the 2004 standard. They're not really separate, they are coming together. I know there's this perception that ‘d’ is fixed, ‘e’ is mobile, and that they’re different. They can be different — if you’re only looking at a fixed deployment, the parameters you’d design against would be different to a mobile deployment,” says MacDonald.

“If I was a manufacturer, looking where I'd be in the short-term future, I’d note that both standards are published, and note that I don't know whether the operators I'd be selling to would be fixed, nomadic or mobile. I would then be designing equipment to the mobility standard, and then operators can choose how to deploy the technology — this is certainly where Intel is going.”

MacDonald does acknowledge, though, that to move from 'd' to 'e' will involve a technology change. He says a number of manufacturers are promising upgradeable base stations, via a software upgrade and some additional hardware, but says upgrading with others will require operators to swap out the hardware.

On the issue of cost, MacDonald says WiMAX should be “magnitudes of order cheaper” than rolling out GSM or 3G. WiMAX, he says, has been developed to ensure intellectual property rights are evenly distributed, and royalties are reasonable — something which is not the case with GSM or 3G, in MacDonald's view.

“Also, by working on minimising the number of variants and ensuring interoperability will help drive down the cost; WiMAX should not have the same licence and spectrum acquisition costs either - no-one in their right mind should be paying the sort of money the 3G operators paid,” adds MacDonald. “And one key difference between deploying WiMAX and GSM or 3G is that operators are unlikely to build a WiMAX network with 100% coverage.”

Events such as the Cairo training are Intel's attempt to bring these issues to the attention of regulators around the world, giving representatives the chance to explore some of these questions.

“Since the event's conclusion we've received a few emails from the participants, saying the event was extremely useful,” says Abdulrahman Jarrar, Intel's regional manager for government affairs for the Middle East. “We tried to cover the technology side as well as the standards side; it really helped the regulators get a comprehensive picture of WiMAX. It was important to give an idea of where WiMAX technology is today, because a lot of them had questions about the readiness of the technology, and if it could be deployed today.”

“I do not think all regulators do necessarily know what WiMAX is; we get comments and questions from a lot of regulators who are very interested and want to know more”

“So we had a dilemma — do we wait, position WiMAX as best we can now, and ensure it becomes part of 4G? The timescales for that are 2012-14, and we need spectrum now”

“By working on minimising the number of variants and ensuring interoperability, the cost of WiMAX should be driven down. It should not have the same licence and spectrum acquisition costs as 3G”

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