May II 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris
Editor-In-Chief
Connect-World

4 G and 3 cheers for Intel… WiFiWiMAX! WiFiWiMAX! Go Team Go!

Intel is one of those big companies that some people almost love to hate – but hate to admit it. Some people just love to cheer for the underdog and when they really have little reason – the underdog is a dog or just doesn’t make the grade – they feel uneasy, they secretly begrudge their admiration. I have my root-for-the-underdog days, but all-in-all I think Intel rocks. (Disclosure – they are not Connect-World advertisers, but I do have a cloth bag that has Intel printed on it. They handed them out at a show several years ago and it now follows me to shows around the world; I stuff my laundry in it – it has a drawstring. Draw your own conclusions.)

I won’t speak about all they have done for personal computing; we all know what a big part they are of what made, and makes, personal computing possible. What fewer people realize is their role in making WiFi the success it is and of the importance of Intel’s backing of WiMAX. In my laundrily biased opinion, Intel’s Centrino chip made WiFi happen by building it into everyone’s laptop. This not only raised the bar for all chipmakers, but made anywhere anytime connectivity a must. Remember the first time you connected to a WiFi network at an airport or a coffee shop? How many of you felt the very first time – as I did – that, ‘that’s the way it should be’, I should be able to connect anywhere.

I’m sitting in an airport now, logged into the WiFi network, on my way to the ITU Telecom Africa 2008 event and from there to the WiMAX World event in Munich. I just checked the news and saw that Intel won a 15 year license in Sweden for a national wireless broadband network using WiMAX technology. It bid US$ 26 million for the frequencies, which it reportedly plans to lease to local partners.

This isn’t the first time that Intel pushed its WiMAX vision by buying into the user-side of the equation; earlier this same week Intel put up US $1billion to restart the Sprint / Clearwire marriage dedicated to WiFi access – it went sour last year after only a few months. To re-start the effort and re-focus its energy on WiMAX, Big Daddy Intel, which had already invested a reported US$620 million in Clearwire, put up the extra billion as part of a US$ 3.2 billion consortium with Sprint, Clearwire, Comcast, Google, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks. The result is a merger of the Clearwire and Sprint WiMAX carriers into a single entity worth some US $14.5 billion.

There are many in the industry that feel Sprint has no truly viable 4G strategy at this point other than WiMAX; so without the consortium it would be hard-pressed to rollout a competitive network. It wasn’t Intel’s altruism, though that saved the day for Sprint, Intel was just backing its favourite horse – WiMAX. Nevertheless, it was a marriage made in heaven. Sprint needs a strong response to LTE – the 4G broadband upgrade technology of choice for most GSM mobile carriers – and Intel has long been leading the push for WiMAX. Intel sponsors, indeed leads, the WiMAX forum, the industry association which guides the development and standardisation of this technology.

The Forum, operator and regulators have had their hands full trying to figure out how to regulate this rapidly evolving technology. WiMAX rapidly evolved from a line-of-sight high frequency fixed broadband technology, that at first was to use unlicensed spectrum, to a non-line-of-sight mobile/fixed broadband technology operating in a variety of lower frequencies that work indoors and in heavily built-up urban areas. LTE has its natural constituency, mainly the incumbent GSM operators that have paid fortunes for the rights to the frequencies they use. They, understandably, are not at all pleased that the frequencies that their competitors use are relatively cheap. They are also troubled by the push for technology neutral regulations which would let operators use licensed frequencies originally destined for other uses for WiMAX.

Given this background and Intel’s heavy investment in WiMAX enabled chips, it is clear that Intel needs friendly frontline troops from the industry to push its vision and guarantee a healthy return on investment.

It is going to be a big fight; the GSM Association is supporting LTE and is not particularly pleased by the prospect of competing with much cheaper phone calls and competition with suppliers of a wide range of broadband enabled services and applications.

In addition to its WiMAX chip sales, Intel gets a share of the revenues generated by the new venture. If WiMAX flies, Intel stands to gain fortunes from both sides of the equation. I have no idea of exactly how the showdown will play out, but I am fairly sure both LTE and WiMAX will survive and thrive. Given the need for all networks to interoperate, users of these two technologies will eventually develop mutually supportive mechanisms and settle into a sustainable equilibrium. There might well be operators that deploy both technologies for technological and marketing reasons – LTE in more highly populated regions and WiMAX for backhaul and local service in rural environments. I expect handsets that simultaneously handle both technologies – and WiFi as well – will probably reach the market shortly.

The new consortium has a tough battle ahead, but given the billions Intel is pouring into the segment – Intel has put money into at least 16 other WiMAX-related companies – WiMAX should be able to soldier on until what is an essentially unwinnable battle peters out. Intel has put its chips on the table, but by no means its entire hoard, and seems likely to win its gamble. LTE will do well given the vested interests of GSM operators, but so should WiMAX. It will be a win for WiMAX, a very big win, not only for Intel, but for many in the developing regions of the world where WiMAX brings the promise of truly inexpensive broadband and voice. WiMAX is potentially more exciting than WiFi; if it grows to realise its full potential, it will be because Intel pushed it. So let’s hear it for Intel – WiFiWiMAX! WiFiWiMAX! Go Team Go!

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Our next Connect-World North America Issue will be published later this month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: • ISCe International Satellite & Communications Conference, San Diego, USA, June 10–12, 2008 and • Nxt Com, Las Vegas, USA, June 17-19, 2008

The theme for this issue will be, 3G, 4 G or both? The race is on.

In a normal world 2.5G follows 2G and is followed by 3 or 3.x G and then 4G, Operators normally would follow a pre-defined evolutionary sequence, but the competition is so rough – and the economics so compelling – that many companies are considering jumping the track and switching technologies and generations. What might the consequences of this be in terms of the networks, equipment, applications, security and especially the market and the consumer?

North America 2008 Media Pack; Click here

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