Technologies such as WiMax promise major benefits, but may still fall foul of regulatory issues and lack of RF spectrum. NME looks at the issues.
Regulation – it’s one of those critical issues which enterprises need to be aware of, but which is simultaneously pretty impenetrable. Not only are there local and national bodies to deal with, but a host of international organisations such as the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) which have lead times on new standards or amendments stretching into years.
In the Middle East, spectrum regulation for networking products – particularly wireless ones – can be something of a grey area. Users of free space optical technology are often unwilling to talk publicly, for example – they risk the local authorities ‘enforcing’ regulations, and possibly levying a substantial ‘fee’ for the privilege of doing so.
For new technologies such as WiMax, the issues are even more complex. WiMax is at a critical juncture at the moment, with its champion Intel, along with the WiMax Forum, pushing regulators around the world to free up the spectrum the standard will require. To make matters even more complicated for WiMax, each variant – fixed and mobile – is after a different chunk of spectrum.
The risk for the technology is that if there is no global consensus on assigning WiMax just a few areas of spectrum, it may not be viable – the more allocated blocks, the more complex the technology needs to be, or the more it needs to be re-engineered for different regions, all pushing up the costs.
This is not a new phenomenon, although the stakes are perhaps higher for WiMax than other technologies have been in the past. One technology which went through the struggle for spectrum 10 years ago is Tetra, the digital long-range radio system favoured by many emergency services around the world. Iain Ivory, Tetra market development manager at Motorola’s Network and Enterprise division, says the technology is just about to go through another drive for spectrum, with the development of the more demanding Tetra 2.
One of the key factors in success for a new technology, in terms of spectrum allocation, is user demand, according to Ivory: “Take Tetra 2 as an example; we know what technology and what modulation schemes will be used, so we can work out how much spectrum will be required if we want to roll it out on a nationwide level. We then go to the regulators, and say ‘we need this certain spectrum’.
“The regulators come back and ask us what we’re planning to do with it, what is the user base that it’s aimed at, what are the advantages of the system, who’s going to use it? The industry can lobby the spectrum organisations, but the impact doesn’t come until the users actually lobby the regulators, and say there is a need for this technology,” he explains.
From the industry side, Intel is certainly doing its bit to persuade regulators around the world. The vendor 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.
The event was in Cairo, and attracted around 20 regulators representing 12 countries from the Middle East and Africa.
The 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 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 specifi cations which 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 services.
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. And by getting as many regulators as possible on side before the conference, Intel will greatly increase its chances of success.
“The intention of events like the Cairo training session – 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 Graham MacDonald, wireless standards and regulations manager at the Technology Policy and Standards division within EMEA Government Affairs at Intel.
“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 doesn’t 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 background to WiMax, and outlined how it might be used.
The regulators’ questions at the event centred around 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 Sprint Nextel in the USA who 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 – fi xed 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 regulator s. He says the starting position was to push the technology as more than 3G, but not quite 4G (although WiMax’s OFDMA modulation will be used within 4G). But this led to rejection within the ITU thanks, MacDonald says, to hostile supporters of the 3G camp.
“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 of WiMax.
“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 fi xed, 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 we at Intel are 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 a hardware swap. Majed Sifri, CEO and president of Redline Communications, which is one of the leading WiMax suppliers to the Middle East currently, says he sees the short-term future for WiMax as lying very firmly with the 16d fixed standard.
“For the next few years, WiMax equipment will be primarily fixed,” he says. “However, there is a grey area between fixed and mobile, which is nomadic. You can cater to nomadic use using either 802.16d, or 16e technology. This is an area where we see a lot of growth in the next few years.
“We get asked about ‘skipping’ from 16d to 16e quite frequently, mostly in the West – we face this question much less in emerging markets. Almost any operator in the emerging world recognises that there’s a significant pent-up demand for broadband access, that is not being dealt with in a signifi cant way by anybody.”
Sifri also emphasises the importance of getting access to the 2.5GHz spectrum in the Middle East: “We at Redline intend to have one of the earliest 802.16e mobile platforms, and it is important to have 2.5GHz spectrum available to our customers in order to deploy mobile solutions. But the regulators are very careful about how they deal with this, because they’re not sure when the market will open, or how big it will be.
But they’ve been much more open than historically about opening up the 3.5GHz spectrum here in the Middle East.”
On the issue of cost, MacDonald says WiMax should be “magnitudes of order cheaper” than rolling out 3G. WiMax, he says, has been developed to ensure intellectual property rights are evenly distributed, and royalties are reasonable.
“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,” adds MacDonald. “And one key difference between deploying WiMax and GSM is operators are unlikely to build a network with 100% coverage.”
Events such as the Cairo training are Intel’s attempt to bring these issues to the attention of regulators, giving representatives the chance to explore some of these questions.
Based on the response to Cairo, Intel certainly seems to feel the events are worthwhile. “Since the event we’ve received a few emails from the participants, saying it was extremely useful,” says Abdulrahman Jarrar, regional manager for government aff airs for the Middle East at Intel. “We tried to cover the technology side as well as the standards side; it really helped the regulators get a comprehensive picture of WiMax; a lot of them had questions about the readiness of the technology, and if it can be deployed today.”