|Issue:||Europe I 2007|
|Topic:||WiMAX, 3G and WiFi – play together!|
Jim Baker is the founder and CEO of Moovera Networks, a UK-based developer of fixed and mobile wireless access devices. Prior to founding Moovera in 2006, Mr Baker was CEO of Telabria, a wireless ISP that launched one of the first WiMAX-class networks in the UK. Previously, Mr Baker was based in California where, as CEO, he led two successive streaming media companies from start-up to acquisition. Jim Baker is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, a member of the IEEE and IEE, and an active member of the WiMAX Forum Service Provider Working Group. He is also a regular conference speaker on wireless technologies and their applications and has been profiled in Forbes Magazine.
WiMAX is growing rapidly. WiMAX infrastructure spending should reach US$7.5 billion by 2009 and there will be almost 250 million WiFi devices operating by 2011. There are few major metropolitan areas in the US, and globally, that are not considering wireless broadband networks. Metropolitan networks with WiMesh cells and WiMAX backhaul are a perfect match. WiMAX/WiFi/3G convergence may be the key to a successful wireless broadband strategy, but 3G operators see this as cutting their voice revenues.
There’s no doubt that 2006 has been a year of real, tangible progress for the WiMAX standard. The hype has been superseded by the first large deployments around the world of WiMAX, 802.16d networks intended for fixed wireless broadband services, primarily within the 3.4-3.5GHz spectrum range. At the same time, mobile WiMAX has been chosen over competing technologies such as TD-CDMA in high-profile decisions by Sprint Nextel and others in the sub-3GHz bands. Indeed, WiMAX equipment vendors expect significant growth in the market over the next three years, with global WiMAX infrastructure spending expected to reach almost US$7.5bn by 2009, up from US$655m in 2006. Interestingly, over 55 per cent of this spending was made within Europe, where regulators have been quick to capitalize on the demand for spectrum in which to operate wireless broadband services and international players, such as Clearwire, have snapped up licences in multiple markets, including Belgium, Denmark and Germany. With the recent announcement by the UK’s regulator, Ofcom, of the planned sale of key 2.5GHz WiMAX spectrum in 2007-2008, all eyes are on the players likely to contend for this prime real estate, including BT and Clearwire, and 3G/HSDPA, third generation/ High Speed Downlink Packet Access, and operators such as T-Mobile and Vodafone who traditionally see wireless data as their turf. Still, despite the strides WiMAX has taken, surely there is room for other more established technologies at the same table. From the creative ways in which operators and local authorities have rolled out networks during 2006, the answer would appear to be a resounding ‘yes’. WiMAX is still in its infancy, and the full mobility promised by 802.16e is not here yet. As a result, many providers are relying on the convergence of WiMAX, WiFi and 3G to deliver services that encompass mobile Internet, VoIP and video, and this acceptance of multiple standards may be the key to a successful wireless broadband strategy. With over 250 million WiFi-enabled devices expected by 2011, up from 40 million in 2006, WiFi is hardly in decline. The truth is the market can’t wait for 802.16e to start appearing in laptops; the wagon is rolling and those who are inventive when it comes to convergence will get a head start. A key driver to this is the municipal wireless phenomenon that has seen a staggering 300 plus major projects started in the US alone this year, the vast majority of which rely on a hybrid approach of fixed WiMAX and WiFi to deliver services ranging from symmetric broadband for businesses to low-bandwidth ‘free’ residential services. While the business model behind many of these projects is yet to be proven, it is undeniable that there appear to be few major metropolitan areas in the US that are not considering some sort of wireless broadband network, whether owned by the city or a service provider, or a combination of the two. The drivers tend to be both commercial and social, and a cynic might say the latter is the primary attraction for city leaders seeking an election differentiator. The fact remains, however, that when built and run properly, these citywide networks can produce positive results for both citizens and authorities alike. The Norfolk Open Link network, deployed in and around the city of Norwich in the United Kingdom, is a good example of the municipal network phenomenon. Launched in early August 2006, the £1.35m (US$2.65m) two-year project was the first community wireless network in the UK to provide free Internet access for the public sector, the business community and the general public. Funded by the East of England Development Agency, Norfolk Open Link aims to evaluate the impact that mobile technology could have on the economic development and the delivery of public-sector services in Norfolk. The Norfolk network has over 250 WiFi mesh access points installed on street lamps over a 30 square kilometre area. Tens of thousands of users registered to use the free 256Kbps service within the first five months of service. However the main aim of the network, and the reason it received government funding, was to deliver a 1Mbps secure wireless service to public-sector employees, from building inspectors to social workers and emergency services, including fire and police. During the two-year project, Norfolk County Council will experiment with a wide range of applications, including VoIP and IP-CCTV, to better understand how these technologies can help provide a better range of services to their citizens while improving efficiency and reducing costs. The network, built by Synetrix, comprises a hybrid infrastructure of WiMAX-class fixed wireless backhaul and WiFi mesh. While operating in unlicensed frequencies, by utilizing 2.4, 5.4 and 5.8GHz the network makes full use of the spectrum in these bands, delivering an aggregate capacity far greater than that possible within sub 6GHz licensed bands in the UK. Since the network is not permitted to compete with traditional wireline broadband services such as ADSL, the 256Kbps limit delivers just enough symmetric bandwidth for the user to get a meaningful broadband experience while also prioritizing real-time services such as VoIP. In a high-profile test of the network’s capability, the BBC sent a team of reporters to Norwich to try out gaming, video conferencing and VoIP with very positive results. Norfolk Open Link has not only set the bar in terms of the way municipal networks can be built and operated for both public sector and citizen use, but also helped define the technical landscape for WiMAX/WiFi convergence. So if WiMAX and WiFi fit so perfectly together, where does that leave 3G? Well there’s no question that the 3G operators have been particularly touchy when it comes to any technology that could undermine their massive investments in UMTS. This reached new levels of paranoia this summer when T-Mobile UK launched a 1Mbps+ HSPDA service across the UK with contractual small print forbidding VoIP and instant messaging. After enduring several months of bad press, the company lifted the restrictions for certain tariffs although the episode provided an interesting glimpse of the problems facing operators as new technology erodes their market. In the UK, with five major carriers offering 3G data services, and with some able to cover more than 80 per cent of the population, the situation is particularly tense; WiFi and VoIP present real competition. For example, I have a Symbian-based Nokia E61 mobile phone onto which I recently installed the Truphone VoIP client. The remarkable thing is there’s no VoIP ‘application’; whenever I’m within range of a WiFi network and I dial a number, the phone asks me if I want to place the call over either the cellular or WLAN network. By setting up profiles that recognize the WLAN networks I most often associate with – for example, my home and office WLANs, BT OpenZone and The Cloud – I nearly always seamlessly roam between cellular and WiFi networks without my needing to do anything. Frankly, this is the most impressive piece of convergence I’ve seen to date. I figured out that during the course of an average workday as I move between home, work and my local city of Canterbury (of Chaucer’s Tales game), I make and receive calls over networks comprising 3G, WiMAX, ADSL and WiFi; all without really noticing which. The problem for 3G operators is how to address the way in which such converged devices rather inconveniently deprive them of voice revenue so transparently. One innovative way in which 3G and WiFi coexist – indeed rely on each other – is where the two technologies merge to provide Internet access on public transportation. Where a passenger is stuck in a seat for 15 minutes or more, Internet access is a definite bonus. Typically this is on trains, buses and coaches and often on commuter routes. The UK transport operators have been pioneering this market, with a number of long-haul train and coach companies introducing on-board WiFi for customer ‘stickiness’. The two largest coach operators, National Express and Stagecoach, have both introduced WiFi on popular routes with the added attraction of it being free. Stagecoach introduced WiFi on its London to Oxford route in October 2006, a journey popular with the enormous student population of the university city. With over 3,000 users participating in 11,000 sessions by mid-December, the results show a large number of recurring users clearly keen to while away the hour and a half journey catching up on email or checking that ever-important bid on eBay. With over 50 per cent of the journey within HSDPA coverage providing download speeds up to 1.2Mbps, the experience is certainly a broadband one. The truth is that we expect to be connected when we want and where we want. In the past we’ve made do with GPRS, but now that we’re paying for 3G services or have WiFi-enabled phones, we want to use them – and rightly so. The winners will be those who can ensure their subscribers experience a seamless transition between networks for data, voice and video. To do this effectively operators must embrace the wireless technologies at their disposal and seek co-operative agreements to permit roaming across cellular, WiFi and WiMAX services. Only then can they exploit fully the full promise of convergence and survive in an increasingly competitive landscape.