Beyond 3G

At present the major players in wireless are locked in a debate at the 3GPP that will determine the shape of the industry. At stake is enormous R&D investment, industry influence, even survival.

The current heavyweights are the vendors - more than other companies, Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm have emerged as the power-players in the 3G world. But now there are a number of industry proponents that want to see their technological know-how earn similar rewards - step forward NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone and a host of other vendors that feel they lost out the first time round.

This gives an indication of the magnitude of the task facing 3GPP - all of these companies are working to different timelines, different markets and different technology requirements. Compounding the problem, alternative technologies have emerged, all of which stand to gain if 3GPP loses its grip and begins to squander its advantage in standardization. In terms of standardization and certification work, we believe this currently amounts to a three-year advantage. Principal WiMAX backer Intel has staked its future on sharing mobile growth, and is thus the biggest potential winner if 3GPP should falter. 

The recent gridlock at the WTO in Hong Kong gives a sobering example of the failure of a group of vested interests to move forward. Can 3GPP do better‾ We believe it has to.

Harder this time round

To gain an understanding of what is at stake, we need to look back to the process that settled on W-CDMA as the principle standard in IMT-2000. Then there were fewer technology leaders, yet the industry was rocked for years by a 'holy war' between the CDMA and GSM camps. Technology leaders came up with different proposals - Ericsson and Nokia in one camp, Qualcomm and others advocating CDMA, and Motorola and Alcatel with yet a different solution.

This time around, there are more vested interests, and more parties who are determined not to get caught out again.

Noticeable there is the increased power of the mobile operators. NTT DoCoMo, having essentially excluded itself last time by choosing PDC as its 2G technology, is determined to play a leading role in the standardization process, and other operators such as Vodafone are looking to dictate terms to the infrastructure vendor community as they have done in the handset area.

Compounding the debate has been the different priorities of the member companies. For many 3GPP members, their market dynamics and licensing regimes mean that they are only just beginning to look at implementing W-CDMA. Further, the technological challenges have been such that many 3GPP members wanted to put off discussing the successor for as long as possible, preferring to concentrate on ironing out and implementing releases 99, 4 and 5.

Compare this to NTT DoCoMo, facing strong competition from new entrants and KDDI and (most importantly) a desire to take what it believes is its rightful place at the vanguard of the wireless industry. It will close its 2G PDC network shortly after 2010 and states that the current HSDPA/HSUPA roadmap will not be sufficient from 2008. 


The main contenders

There have been several proposals outlining the next steps for 3GPP beyond HSUPA. Encouragingly, there is significant common ground. There is agreement on the preferred modulation technology: OFDM. Developed initially by the Bell Labs in the '60s, it is now a de facto choice for most of the next-generation wireless technologies. Super 3G is based on OFDM, as is Flarion's technology, as is WiMAX and WiBro. There is also a consensus on the need to incorporate scalable bandwidths in the transmission channel, ranging from 1.25 MHz through 2.5 and 5 up to 10 and 20 MHz.

The proposals vary in the extent to which they modify existing network structures. Both the DoCoMo-led Super 3G idea and Nokia's Internet High Speed Packet Access bypass network elements such as the RNC, the SGSN, etc. In contrast, Nortel's HSOPA proposal is based on existing network structures while still incorporating OFDM and MIMO.

In tandem, the CDMA-based 3GPP2 has recently extended its technology roadmap, with EV-DO Revision A boasting much improved uplink capabilities and latency that will support VoIP.

While there is some consensus on underlying structures, where there is less agreement and potentially more acrimony is on how these technologies will affect the cross-licensing power balance currently in force.

Still unclear is who owns essential IPR for the new technologies. OFDM has been in existence since the '60s and now boasts many flavors, of which Flarion (currently being purchased by Qualcomm) and SR Technologies are the 'new' players to the 3GPP. Equally, many other companies claim a strong IPR position with regard to OFDM, including Samsung, Intel, Nokia and Ericsson.

Each of these groups has a vested interest in seeing 'their' proposal adopted. One only has to look at the current position of the leading W-CDMA companies to realize the stakes. All will be mindful of the potential costs of failure. Unfortunately, this could lead to WTO style intransigence and deadlock.

Likely outcomes

At present, the situation is poised. We believe that the global momentum of W-CDMA and HSDPA/HSUPA makes it well-placed to withstand competition from the WiMAX camp (particularly) over the next three years. Beyond then, the continued success of the standards and the operators and vendors committed to deploying them depends on a rapid agreement on the technology roadmap beyond HSUPA.

Yet, fast progress in bringing technologies to market is normally associated with proprietary technologies, not the multi-layered, multiple interest approach represented by the standard bodies. And while 3GPP has become even more diverse, both 802.16 (driven by Intel and Samsung) and 802.20 (potentially driven by Qualcomm) could develop very quickly indeed.

The current grouping with the most momentum appears to be the loose affiliation of operators and vendors around the Super 3G proposal, with NTT DoCoMo the most vocal. But we do not rule out wild cards: the fast-tracking of 802.20 and 802.16e being included as an 'alternative' release in 3GPP would come under this category.

There is plenty at stake.