WiMax Must Take the Stage or Miss Its Cue

Opinion: Once Wi-Fi was the only real threat to WiMax; now Qualcomm's Flash-OFDM is coming up fast.

The HIPERMAN standard, despite what it sounds like, isnt Intel talking about WiMax. The standard is defined by ETSI, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, not the IEEE. And much of the delay in getting things started at the new WiMax testing labs in Malaga, Spain, is actually a good thing.

That is to say: Its not caused by failure of the technology. Rather, its about a serious attempt to reconcile the two standards-setting bodies in this area.

Some would say that its succeeded. Im no big booster of WiMax—at least, not the snake-oil version of WiMax which Intel is offering the world.

Ive gone on record several times, here at my own news site, suggesting that for the mobile user, WiMax really doesnt offer anything you cant get from Wi-Fi, or Flash-OFDM or even WCDMA.

But skeptic though Ill happily admit to being, Im going to call this one a win for the WiMax Forum; I think the 802.16 2004 spec, which provides a shared physical layer with the ETSI HIPERMAN standard, is an achievement which will now rapidly come into use.

The trouble is, the delay caused by harmonizing the two has left a lot of people wondering, are we actually looking at the Emperors new clothes? Be sure: If there is a problem keeping the royal butt warm, the scandal will be adequately publicized by Qualcomm.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read about Motorolas WiMax strategy.

There are two issues in play here. One is the simple technical business of getting broadband into areas where it cant easily be connected via cables under the ground or over the road. For that, 802.16d and HIPERMAN technology looks, to me, like a great idea.

The implementation will involve relatively cheap bits of kit, stuck on the tops of tall buildings on or poles, talking to each other at frequencies of 11GHz and up. That means line of sight, and it means broad-spectrum chunks with very high data rates.

Theres not the slightest reason to say this wont work. If the standard makes the kit genuinely low in cost, then it will be possible to run virtual cable into new developments, or new business areas in traditional or antique architectures, or even into temporary areas—like a big cruise liner parked in the docks—for a tiny fraction of the cost of laying real fiber in ducts. And the bandwidth will be adequate for serious business use.

But what about mobile WiMax?

If you happen to wander around the WiMax Forums Web site and pry into their FAQ, youll discover that the mobile version is 802.16e, and, "The 802.16e standard is being reviewed by IEEE and is expected to be approved in mid-2005."

/zimages/4/28571.gifTo read about AT&Ts urban WiMax trial, click here.

We all know, in the high-tech business, that "Third Quarter" means Sep. 30, and so "mid-2005" probably doesnt reach its sell-by until then. But the date has slipped, and slipped and slipped; its been less than a year since I had Intel executive vice presidents telling me that products would be shipping, not just specifications agreed, by this time.

And this time is the time of Qualcomm and Flarion. As Timothy Sanders of WiMax.com urged his readers to consider, WiMax was always going to be a threat to Qualcomm if it worked.

The problems of Wideband CDMA in providing high-speed, low-packet-latency data to the mobile user are still only partly exposed. Band-aid patches like HSPDA and IMS are just cosmetic; and if WiMax could have reached mobile users quickly, Qualcomms intellectual property empire could have been in trouble.

The main threat it faced, however, was not WiMax; it was Flarion, with Flash-OFDM technology. Ive used that; it works, and it works well.

I was streaming live high-res video in a taxi in The Hague more than a year ago on a Flarion-installed network, and there are increasing numbers of such trials, and now, installations, around Europe, the Far East, and even in North America.

And now, that threat is no longer a threat, because Qualcomm owns Flarion.

There are good reasons to say that Wi-Fi wasnt a solution to the problems that WiMax tries to solve. There are also good reasons to dispute that! But it remains a fact that Wi-Fi was really the only threat to WiMax which had public credibility.

With Qualcomm pushing Flash-OFDM, that ceases to be true. Suddenly, the WiMax Forum has to perform, or leave the stage. Has it got time to do the former? Or are we going to hear "the gong"?

Contributing columnist Guy Kewney has been irritating the complacent in high tech since 1974. Previously with PC Mag UK and ZDNet UK, Guy helped found InfoWorld, Personal Computer World, MicroScope, PC Dealer, AFAICS Research and NewsWireless. And he only commits one blog—forgiveable, surely? He can be reached at gkewney@yahoo.com.

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