The WiMAX vs. Cellular Debate … or Is It?

The debate surrounding the new entrant into wide area wireless standard developments has tended to be constructed as being WiMAX versus Cellular technologies and market development.

That seems fair, but industry shaping debates should start with a clear understanding of the framing of the premise of the debate.

Judging from recent white papers, panel discussions, articles and interviews, WiMAX is being opposed as WiMAX being an anti-cellular effort rather than an alternative development that fits into cellular mobile and the broader context of fixed-mobile convergence. While WiMAX appeals to alternative service providers because some spectrum is designated specifically for use by wireless broadband, and all IP systems will cause significant shifts in business models, it and the cellular 3.5-4G are heading on the same convergent change path that renders the dichotomy viewpoint a Swiss cheese argument:

  • WiMAX and LTE are developing according to goals for evolution to the 4G multi-service wireless broadband platform that addresses both mobility and high bandwidth applications.
  • While WiMAX has broadened to become more mobile and capable of being used for media services, 3G cellular has become increasingly broadband resulting in practical convergence between these fields of development.  What’s more, both are driven to use the same core sets of technologies, authentication and handoff, network management, dissimilar network roaming that align goals for network operation and user experience.
  • Multi-mode SoC and device designs are increasingly capable of delivering a user experience that disregards the differences between WiMAX and cellular. If the user can make use of services that transit from WiMAX to cellular networks, the argument in favor of control of the huge market share currently held by cellular becomes mute.
  • The argument that the huge investment in development of the cellular industry sets it apart from WiMAX also breaks down in light of the fact that many of cellular’s most prominent contributors are also contributing their technology, design, production and marketing capabilities to WiMAX. Operators may convert or cross-sell their cellular customers to WiMAX to gain additional revenues.
  • Mainstream regulatory organizations, including ITU, are setting the requirements for next generation wireless systems to which both WiMAX and 3GPP/3GPP2 aspire.
  • Next generation wireless will be based on OFMDA which causes a similar discontinuity of air interfaces from 3G for LTE and WiMAX.

While practical differences in technical implementations, market momentum, regulation of spectrum, and corporate support between WiMAX and LTE remain, the gap continues to shrink such that it looks increasingly like the gap between one generation of mainstream cellular system and the next. As with every cellular system, operator decisions regarding adoption of WiMAX depend on detailed business case analysis that takes into account all known factors for successful deployment and business development. This includes how established business will be affected as more open broadband access is adopted. It can be easily argued that the wireless industry is at the threshold of fundamental changes caused by a plunge into open IP environments that run on top of the wireless networks. Regardless of whether the network has a WiMAX or LTE label pasted on it the change threatens captive service models if the transition is not pursued deliberately. The adversarial position being fostered on WiMAX is more to do with WiMAX forcing the inevitable, not the end result. And the reasons for success will have more to do with how effectively business opportunities are developed and how immediate they force new service delivery paradigms. Having good WiMAX chips, systems and software is essential but to building useful networks, but from the operator’s perspective this is similar to how PC and networking hardware is essential to creation of the networked paradigm of computing: an enabler of new applications and business operations. The competitive details of how this disruptive change comes about are basis for arguments, some with major impacts on business decisions and results. But the posturing of the overall debate as being WiMAX versus cellular as if they aren’t both headed toward the same end game is increasingly being seen as ridiculous. We contend that WiMAX is another variant of cellular which faces the same hurdles for adoption as a major new system development, such as LTE, that is cast within the traditional cellular standards development groups. While the approach of WiMAX and 3GPP/3GPP2 started out from a different set of objectives, fixed-nomadic data versus mobile voice, the technologies and market demand has evolved over the past seven years to become very similar. What’s more, the evolutionary path directs both fields of development toward the same basic goals and sets of technologies, making arguments that these are distinct impractical:

  • WiMAX 802.16e-2005 looks very likely to be accepted as a member of IMT-2000 cellular.
  • WiMAXm 802.16m/j will be proposed for IMT-Advanced
  • LTE, the next generation of systems from the 3G camp, will similarly use OFDMA and be proposed for IMT-Advanced.
  • Major goals for IMT-Advanced include an evolutionary framework upon which multiple classes of services and scale of operation can be developed. The goals of ITU for 4G look very similar to what WiMAX has become over the past three years as major telecommunications companies and operators have influenced development.

Incumbent Suppliers Argue the Differences Ericsson, the world’s largest supplier of cellular infrastructure, has renounced the importance of WiMAX. Earlier this year, Ericsson announced that they were pulling the plug on development of WiMAX and would devote their B3G efforts to develop LTE. Ericsson has resold WiMAX equipment from Airspan but has never committed significant effort to development of WiMAX internally. Strategically, it has never made sense for them to push WiMAX, or any alternative, that may dilute their own market position. Ericsson executive vice president Bert Nordberg contends in the June 18th issue of the Globes online magazine, “We have nothing against WiMAX, but I have to say that it has no business model. This at least is Ericsson’s conclusion about the matter. Therefore we’re not investing in this area at all. What is supposed to work on WiMAX already works on cellular 3G.” Counterpoint: One thing that is unarguable is that the cellular industry has evolved and managed to survive adoption of new wireless interfaces that were not directly backward compatible. This has been driven by the need to deliver better levels of voice and higher bandwidth data service. Operators would prefer to see systems evolve on the same technology platform long enough to enjoy profits, but have been driven to adopt new cellular systems that provide a commercial advantage despite the need to commit large capital expenditure to displace or deploy next generation systems into new spectrum. The business case for 3G deployment is clearly demonstrated, but as the need for bandwidth continues to grow, so the case for a shift to B3G (beyond 3G) systems based on OFDMA technology is progressively strengthened. Bert Nordberg says, “They talk about WiMAX having 30 million customers in 2010,” says Nordberg. “But by that time, cellular broadband will have 500 million subscribers. These are completely different orders of size. If we have learned anything from the history of technology adoption in the telecommunications market, it is that standardization has huge power, and cellular is the standard.” Two points:

1) The wireless industry has broadened and matured to be focused on multiple classes of service. The vision for IMT-Advanced evolution to 4G is for highly scalable multi-service evolutionary platforms. While the path of development is likely to be dominated in numbers by mobile applications, the trend is for more diverse and specialized services commanding higher profit margins that may prove more fundamental to overall business development. The majority of future profits will likely come from extended data networks and services, not from basic voice or data connections.

2) Ethernet is the predominant standard for wired data communications and business more directly extends to the WiMAX. Open use of Internet communications and applications is part of the converged landscape of fixed-mobile technology and market convergence. It is myopic to consider cellular mobile market momentum as a sole defensible position, particularly since WiMAX can translate that via multi-mode to new IP service networks. Although wireless communications has been defined within various standards development groups and sets of companies that have technology and commercial agendas,

WiMAX is a cellular technology, for the most part indistinct from established cellular by virtue of the increasingly overlapping road maps for development. If a cellular operator adopts WiMAX which is multi-mode compatible with their existing cellular network, their customers hardly need to know. WiMAX does also appeal to alternative service providers and various classes of service that are distinct from mainstream mobile cellular. However, these can take advantage of cost dynamics achieved in mobile markets and roaming agreements to extend the user environment. Standardization does have huge power in helping to drive costs and market adoption. Convergence between IT/Networking, Internet, radio, music and TV media and new interactive PtP viral music and video as well as mobile and fixed communications drive multiple participants together to influence overall product and market development. While mobile cellular dominates in terms of volume, it does not dominate in terms of applications, content or dollars and openness of development and user participation. The WiMAX standard comes about at a time that opening up of many classes of service to the benefits of standardization is practical. Several more arguments can be made for a shift to B3G platforms that take better advantage of evolving trends in smart antennas and granularly adopted smart wireless broadband networks. The cellular wireless approach can be criticized in it’s entirety as being too constrained to pursue the coming generation of wireless development: without a major re-write that will make LTE more similar to WiMAX than 3G, incapable of being granularly organized and deployed into open IP use scenarios. ITU’s goals for IMT-Advanced appear quite bold: A multi-service platform capable of providing per-user bandwidths of 1 Gbps fixed-nomadic and 100 Mbps mobile. Asking Ericsson how they plan to achieve 4G performance in LTE or beyond has delivered a response that is very close to the path of development WiMAX is already well on the way to achieving. That flips the debate about continuity of technology developments to place LTE as the follower rather than the leader of the dominant emerging mandates. And the inevitable reorganization of wireless business models along lines of open rather than prescribed content and applications conspires to shift the debate to a matter of when not if new operator revenue models will emerge. The gains in performance needed to deliver 4G will not come from advances in either CDMA or core OFDM interface technologies but from how networks are organized and deployed to make multiple use of available spectrum and source content and applications resources within the distributed network. Delivering the performance gains has more to do with building of smart networks that incorporate wireless than wireless itself. 4G is a wireless broadband network with everything that implies. OFDMA is the core link technology for WiMAX and LTE 4G, but the performance gains must be built upon through an evolution more to do with how networks. The impact of the evolutionary shift to take advantage of the ‘spatial’ and architectural domain of wireless development will be to greatly increase bandwidth density while reducing costs. Suffice it to say that the shift is to a new evolutionary platform with all that this implies: An additional dimension of development that will deliver 3X-10X total network throughput improvement over cellular wireless. What may be the factor that scares up protests to WiMAX the most is the recognition that it is rapidly evolving to deliver on a frontier of new developments that have just started to unfold. Is the debate about WiMAX being a development that is outside the mainstream of cellular development or is it that the entire field of wireless is converging and that brings into play additional industry participants and markets? Put directly, who owns wireless broadband? Is it a select group of mobile companies or a broadened field of development that increasingly includes networking, IT and media interests? We think the momentum is shifting to allow a new contender: Both WiMAX and LTE will battle in the ring for the 4G crown. This may appear to add to problems of harmonization, but systems are increasingly harmonized at higher levels of functionality and converged via multimode at the user device level. Spectrums are also increasingly harmonized through device integration. An enlightening example of this trend is incorporation of Qualcomm Flo/MediaFlo into 3G devices in Europe and the United States: the dissimilar technologies are converged at the chip-set and device level with integration into higher levels. The decision to use MediaFlo/Flo becomes the operator’s commercial decision, not so much a standards debate. Likewise, we expect decisions regarding WiMAX to resolve on practical concerns and for discussions about what is or is not cellular to become meaningless.

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