Thursday, October 23, 2008

WiMAX will drive mobile broadband in Thailand

Intel says WiMAX, 3G are complimentary,

Don Sambandaraksa

WiMAX will be the technology to bridge the digital divide and bring economic development to the country, and Thailand's regulators need to hurry up and issue licences, according to chip giant Intel.

WiMAX, not 3G will be the most cost-effective way to provide wireless broadband access to the masses both in urban business environments and remote rural areas.
Speaking at a press and analyst technology briefing in Bangkok last week, Kevin Lim, Intel's managing director for WiMAX for Intel in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines said that WiMAX was designed from the outset as a wireless broadband network whereas 3G technologies were designed to carry voice. While WiMAX can offer telephony as a service via VoIP (Voice over IP), and some of the 3G network providers see WiMAX as competition, Intel sees it as complimentary. The best example is how Sprint-Clearwire rolled out its Xohm WiMAX network as an overlay on top of areas that already had 3G, where fast speeds and lower cost per bit were needed.

Another key strength is that the intellectual property of WiMAX is spread across many more companies.

Intel hopes to repeat the success of Wi-Fi with WiMAX. Before Centrino in 2002, most people had to buy a big PC Card to add Wi-Fi to their notebooks. Within three years, the attach rate of Wi-Fi with notebooks was more than 90 per cent, and today it is inconceivable to buy a notebook without Wi-Fi connectivity.

Kevin Lim, Intel managing director for WiMAX, urges that the National Telecommunications Commission get its act together and issue WiMAX licences to bridge the ‘digital divide.’
"WiMAX is suffering from a 'chicken and egg' situation now. Device makers say, before I put these capabilities into my device, where's the network. Network operators ask, where's the device? Intel says let's break this dilemma and do the same thing we did with Wi-Fi by including WiMAX as part of the chipset so it becomes part and parcel of the notebook and other computing devices that will come," he said.

Lim said that the first wave of devices will be notebooks and sub-notebooks. Over time we will see MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) and finally what he calls vertical devices. These could be lifts or vending machines with embedded WiMAX to report operating conditions and diagnostics to the maintenance company, or even cars that send telemetry back to the garage, rather than just use it as an Internet connection for navigation and communication.

On October 8, Intel officially launched its Echo Peak Centrino 2 chipset, which adds optional WiMAX to a Wi Fi A, B, G, N controller. Baxter Peak is a smaller solution aimed at MIDs. Currently it is only in use in the Nokia N810 WiMAX MID. It is also making available its Dana Point reference design for ODMs (original device manufacturers) to build their own WiMAX devices.

Lim had a lot of advice to give Thailand's regulators on how best to create a mobile broadband ecosystem.

"Spectrum policy should be done in a way that enables the greatest flexibility. Technology changes, There are improvements in technology constantly as we speak. Technology and service neutrality should be first. The regulator should not restrict the type of technology we are using. It should not say it can only be used for this type of service, that you cannot use it to do voice or for broadcast.

"We are saying WiMAX, but also saying that it should be technology neutral. WiMAX is the technology that satisfies all the requirements that will drive mobile broadband."

One example of neutrality was mobile WiMAX 802.16e. While the technology is designed for mobile use, operators could use it to roll out fixed, nomadic (users that move from place to place to work, but not in use while on the move) as well as fully mobile deployment.

He also said that WiMAX offers the lowest operating costs of any technology today and operators can pass that cost on to consumers.

Brian Cho, from Intel’s regional WiMAX office, has reservations about 3G being a mobile broadband alternative.
The benefits of WiMAX to the rural population for phone calls, healthcare and education have been well documented. Education, in particular aimed at the rural population can have a massive impact on the economy as a whole.

Lim said that most regulators were used to allocating frequency in chunks of 5MHz, which was the norm in the voice world. However, when it comes to mobile broadband, the laws of physics limit the amount of data that can be passed through any given amount of spectrum, and 30MHz is the minimum that Intel is recommending be given to each operator.

Spring-Clearwire has been "very lucky" and given 100MHz of bandwidth for the US Xohm network. The 2.5GHz band is particularly useful as it has a total of 169MHz from 2.5 to 2.69GHz available in most countries.

The first wave of WiMAX devices come in 2.3, 2.5, 3.3 and 3.5GHz band variants and the momentum is clearly with 2.5 and 2.3. The US is rolling out 2.5, and India, previously the largest proponent of 3.3 is now focused on 2.3. This means huge economies of scale for other countries that choose to roll out on 2.3 and 2.5GHz.

Each WiMAX channel is 5 to 10MHz wide. This is different to the cellular world, which is used to 1.25MHz channels.

The Philippines is using 2.3 and 2.5, and one operator is expected to go live with a WiMAX network before the end of the year. Malaysia is on 2.3 and has already launched in Kuala Lumpur. Singapore has issued through auction spectrum on both 2.3 and 2.5. Vietnam has issued trial licences on 2.3 and is expected to release spectrum next year. Cambodia has released spectrum in 2.3, 3.5 as well as 700MHz bands and has already gone commercial with 2.3. Bangladesh has licensed 2.3 and 2.5. Indonesia has identified that it will use 2.3.

Of the region's major economies, that leaves only Thailand without a clear WiMAX roll-out plan.

Intel country manager Accharas Ouysinprasert stressed that the recent WiMAX trials here in Thailand were far from conclusive for a number of reasons. They were using what was termed wave one equipment (Sprint-Clearwire rolled out its network on the US on wave two) which lacked MIMO smart antennas, the amount of frequency given to each operator was far less than the 30MHz that Intel recommended and, compounding matters, there was interference from television broadcasting transmitting on the same frequencies that were given to some of the trial operators.

"The trials did not reflect the true potential of WiMAX," he said bluntly.

The other issue was around licensing. Accharas warned that going for an auction might mean incumbents taking bandwidth and squatting on it to prevent a disruptive technology from taking hold. On the other hand, a beauty contest was open to criticism due to its inherently subjective nature.

Lim added that nationwide licensing was crucial. Taiwan had issued regional WiMAX licences and that did not work well due to a lack of economies of scale. Japan, interestingly, has two national licences and one regional one.

Why 3G is not enough for wireless broadband?

Brian Cho from Intel's Asia-Pacific WiMAX programme office, stressed that he always referred to "WiMAX and 3G" rather than "WiMAX or 3G" as the two technologies are complimentary to each other. In his home country of Korea, KT has uncapped WiBro Internet access in major cities and his dongle will automatically switch to a metered 3G HSDPA connection when out of a WiBro area.

He has spent eight years in the GSM camp and three with WiMAX and is well versed in both technologies.

3G is based on CDMA (Carrier Division Multiple Access) technology while WiMAX is based on OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access). This means that WiMAX has between three to four times the spectral efficiency (bits per second per hertz) than 3G.

He noted that both WiMAX and LTE (Long Term Evolution, the successor to 3G) are based on OFDMA and MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple out) smart antennas, but the key difference is timing. WiMAX has around two years lead time to market. Asked how he felt about the GSM/3G/LTE camp's assertion that WiMAX's OFDMA uplink wasted power and was not suited to mobile devices, Cho carefully explained the technology behind it.

WiMAX uses OFDMA both for uplink and downlink, while LTE has an ODFMA downlink (base station to device) but the uplink is a simpler, SCFDMA (Single Carrier Frequency Division Multiple Access). He said that it is true that SCFDMA can reduce power consumption to a degree. However SCFDMA suffers more from break-up and results in decreased performance. He said that there actually has been talk in the LTE camp of changing the uplink in future versions to OFDMA because of this.

He admitted that it's true that a mobile station at the cell edge transmitting on all carriers will use significantly less power on LTE than on WiMAX, but in a typical scenario without all carriers being used, the power disadvantage of WiMAX is much less.

He also drew parallels between the imminent LTE trials in Japan and what happened to WiBro/WiMAX by Korea Telecom in 2005.

It takes two to four years to go from a ratified specification to commercial roll out. HSDPA was ratified in 2002 and the first commercial roll-outs were in 2006. Mobile WiMAX was ratified in late 2005 but KT conducted trials in mid 2005. Despite that, commercial roll-out was not until 2007. Today, NTT is doing the same with LTE as KT did with WiMAX, testing a draft standard. From experience, Cho predicts that it will still be two or three years before it is available commercially.

Another assertion by the 3G camp is that 3G is a mature technology that can bridge the digital divide and bring broadband to the masses. With a clear path to HSPA and HSPA+, the difference in speeds between the next iteration of 3G and WiMAX will be minimal. Not so, says Cho.

There is a difference between the peak theoretical speed of a wireless broadband connection and the speed a typical user gets. This is called the "sanity check". In the industry, a sanity check of around 30 per cent is considered acceptable and Cho says that this is the case for both HSDPA and WiMAX today.

However, he said that unless Texas Instruments does an exceptional job on the baseband processor and delivers an outstanding signal to noise ratio, the sanity check between HSPA and HSPA+ will be significantly lower.

This is because adding smart MIMO antennas to CDMA technology results in an exponential increase in signal processing complexity as data throughput speeds increase. Cho said that the only way toget near peak throughput on HSPA would be to go and sit not just next to the cell site, but to do so at three in the morning when everyone else is asleep as CDMA+MIMO is much more prone to interference than OFDMA+MIMO.

Finally, on the subject of sub-GHz WiMAX (on 450MHz and 700MHz), Intel as a chipset manufacturer will provide chips to satisfy demand, but the limited amount of spectrum available means that each country can probably only squeeze in one operator and hence the momentum is simply not there.

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