Thursday, October 25, 2007

Why ITU's backing is bad for WiMax

My most recent column for CommsDay/BroadBand Communities.

At first I didn't really know what to make of the announcement that the ITU has recognised 802.16e, or WiMax, as an official 3G standard. A lot of media and industry groups like the WiMax Forum seem to consider it a game-changing decision. I've got a feeling it will actually change nothing. In fact, it could be detrimental to its progress.

With all the lobbying going on behind the scenes, it wasn't an altogether unexpected decision either. One person I asked about it was Ovum analyst Nathan Burley, who also was doubtful the ITU standardisation will have much effect at all. Even the GSM Association has come out all conciliatory over the announcement, saying they were "relaxed" about it. Well, given the relative market shares of 3G/HSPA versus WiMax, they probably can afford to be relaxed.

Ron Resnick, president of the WiMAX Forum, noted that "this is the first time that a new air interface has been added to the IMT-2000 set of standards since the original technologies were selected nearly a decade ago" and suggested that operators would be more willing to adopt it now that it comes with the ITU's stamp of approval.

As Resnick says, 3G has been around for almost a decade -- yet there are still many countries around the world that haven't gotten around to adopting 3G. So somehow I don't think the world's telecom regulators are suddenly going to swing into action and start bringing in WiMax now that the ITU says it's okay. And it certainly didn't stop the likes of Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan from bringing in WiMax licencing frameworks despite not having the ITU's okay.

I'd say the fact that the IEEE itself has been slow to finalise its own 802.16e standard and initiate interoperability has put off more governments than the fact that the ITU approval was missing.

Another outcome of the ITU decision is that it ends the debate once and for all on whether WiMax is a 3G, 3.5G or 4G technology. Settled: it's officially a 3G technology, although I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing for the WiMax camp either.

It means that WiMax is now legitimately a competitor to W-CDMA/HSPA and CDMA 2000 EV/DO, and in that regard it has a lot of catching up to do. A decade's worth, in fact. Given the huge momentum around HSPA in particular, the traditional 3G proponents must be relishing the coming market battle.

In another few weeks, the ITU's World Radiocommunications Conference will have discussed the various 4G proposals and likely we will have a clearer view of what the timetable for the LTE and UWB proposed 4G standards will be. As a result, any operators planning to move to a higher bandwidth wireless technology are likely going to want to look at a 4G technology rather than the decade's old IMT 2000 3G. And that's going to push WiMax even further on the outer.

So while at first glance the ITU news would seem good for WiMax, personally I think it can be viewed as another piece of bad news. --Geoff Long

1 comment:

Amit Narayan said...

Hi Geoff,

I came upon your blog while searching for some info online! NotShort is NotHalfBad, mate. Great stuff.
Specifically on WiMax - i completely agree with your take. The latest ITU decision is one in a long line of regulatory and market moves that are undermining the technology and its capabilities. Pity.

Cheers, Amit Narayan